Horrific crimes can sometimes bring out the best in humanity. We band together over our shared shock and sadness, forgetting for a minute the banality of our daily concerns. When it comes to dealing with the alleged perpetrators of these crimes, our reaction isn’t always so laudable. After news broke that the FBI had captured suspected Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, some people on Twitter and in Boston expressed variations of the sentiment “I’m glad we got him, but I wish we’d killed him,” and many who were okay with him being captured alive are talking about his potential execution with apparent glee.
Vengeance is a strong desire. But it’s an ugly, primitive, base desire. And it’s a desire we should overcome as a species, as it no longer serves a worthwhile purpose. It might take a shift of perspective to accept that.
People are machines. Nuanced, fascinating, incredibly complex machines. This is not how we normally think about humans, primarily because we are more advanced than any manmade machine and are able to do things that seem very un-machine-like, such as emoting, thinking, and desiring. None of these things render us supernatural. We are subject to the same laws of physics as any other system. Our blood lust regarding evildoers is very much centered around the misconception that we each have an ability to make decisions that lies outside of the determinism of natural laws. A misconception that we are in some way outside of consequence. It’s a convincing illusion. We frequently sense that there is a little person living inside our brain. When we feel an emotion, we can feel the little person — our “self” — reacting to it, as if it is distinct instead of part of the same unit. Thus we imagine murderers and terrorists having a little person in their brain that goes “muh ha ha, I’m going to do something evil today”. But that’s not how it works. Imagine a calculator that is programmed to know that 2 + 2 = 5. The calculator doesn’t know that it’s wrong and merely disregard that fact. It actually thinks that two and two make five. Terrorists and psychopaths are just broken or just have maladaptive programming. They have no more ultimate guilt than a broken clock, or a computer with a virus.
Free will is a hard idea to shut down. People hear of a crime and think “well I would never do something like that”. They might not. But put in the perpetrator’s body, of course they would do it! If no part of them was different, there would be no part able to act differently. It is only because they were born who they were, and had the experiences that they did, that they are them, instead of someone else.
When a machine is broken, and you don’t know why, you don’t discard it. You don’t hate it. You inspect it. You question the circumstances that led to it being made this way. You try to see if there is some way to avoid machines being made this way in the future.
I hope we find some answers with Tsarnaev. Answers are more useful than vengeance.