Writer, Boston Marathan runner, and English teacher, Carrie-Anne DeDeo, explores what the death penalty means at the end of the Tsarnaev trial. Dedeo has published articles in the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Evaluation Exchange and The Writers' Chronicle. She completed the 2015 Boston Marathon in 3:33:12. Her current project is a young-adult novel about a girl who decides to change her life by taking on a difficult race.
Photo by Rebecca Kinney.
As my students and I prepare for the final exam in my ninth-grade English class, we have been talking a lot about endings and the messages they send. Why can Jane Eyre only marry Rochester after she’s inherited money and found a family, and he’s lost his sight and his hand? What does it matter that Creon accepts responsibility for the deaths of his wife, son, and niece, Antigone? They’re still dead, despite his character growth.
Endings are important. They tell us who the characters really are. We tell stories about our own lives, too. They tell us who we are.
April 15, 2013, the Boston Marathon. Five miles to go. After struggling on the Newton Hills, I felt happy, fast, and confident. Buoyed by the screaming crowds from Boston College to Boylston Street, I told myself the story of a comeback. After being sidelined by a stress fracture the previous year, I was running the Marathon again and feeling strong. I crossed the finish line at Copley Square twelve minutes faster than my first time, two years earlier.
Eleven minutes later, the first bomb went off.
That afternoon and evening, huddled first in a Copley Square hotel room with members of my running club, and then staring glassy-eyed at TV screens in the Somerville dive bar where a planned celebration turned into a sort-of wake, I flailed for a new narrative. How could we ever see the Boston Marathon the same way again—“runner’s Christmas,” as one friend liked to put it? How could we ever look forward to crossing a finish line where so much death and suffering had occurred?
How could anyone choose to hurt people like that?
In the aftermath of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s sentencing, I still don’t know the answer to that last question.
In the wake of the bombing, the narrative I found was one of community. Unsure if it was safe—or even possible—to take the T, my fellow runners and I walked back across the river in packs, to be picked up by family and friends on the other sides of closed bridges. The next morning, I arrived at the Catholic independent school where I teach to find the upper school students and faculty gathered in the community center, engaged in prayer for the bombing victims, their families, and the runners—which included me.
That day in class, we didn’t talk about Jane Eyre. We talked about what had happened. All around the school, teachers and students had stories to tell. Two girls had been trying to cross Boylston Street to shop for prom dresses at Lord & Taylor. Others had just split off from their parents after the Red Sox game and begun to look for a place to watch the finishers. Thankfully, no one had been hurt, but we all had been affected.
As the days continued, more stories emerged. One student’s father, a member of the Boston Police Department, wasn’t home for days. Another girl attended the same Irish step-dance school as seven-year-old Jane Richard, who lost a leg and whose brother, Martin, was killed in the blast.
Everyone was connected somehow, and it was that feeling of connection that sustained me through the week, that gave me hope in humanity in the face of senseless tragedy. On Thursday night, three days after the bombing, members of my club ran from the site of our usual weekly workout to Somerville City Hall for a candle-light vigil in honor of the bombing victims. Hours later, Sean Collier—who, as a member of the Somerville Auxiliary Police had directed traffic at our road races—would be shot and killed in his MIT police car by the Tsarnaev brothers.
I awoke the next day to a text from a coworker telling me that our school—in one of the communities surrounding Watertown, where the Tsarnaevs’ overnight shootout with the police had taken place—was closed due to the lockdown. For the next several hours, I sat on my couch, glancing back and forth between the TV screen and my laptop, where friends who had recently bought houses in Watertown provided updates on Facebook faster than the newscasters could provide them. It wasn’t too long before I learned the identity of the younger of the two bombers: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had graduated a year earlier from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where I’d student-taught. I hadn’t had him in my class four years earlier. But I could have.
How had a kid who had walked the same halls as me have placed a bomb next to an eight-year-old boy?
In the weeks that followed, I didn’t find any answers—at least not any that satisfied me. Driving to work every day, I listened to eyewitness accounts on Boston’s NPR affiliate from victims, first responders, and ordinary people who had leapt into action. There weren’t many days when I didn’t arrive at school with tears in my eyes. Tears not of sadness, but of wonder at the bravery and selflessness of so many members of the Boston community.
Yesterday, after grading a shoulder-high stack of Jane Eyre annotations, I climbed into my car to hear, on that same radio station, a reporter announce that the jury in the Tsarnaev trial had decided on a sentence.
As I drove home, tears again threatened to fill my eyes. For over two years now, I have been telling myself that the Boston Marathon bombing was a story of inspiration and recovery, of a community coming together in strength and support. That was what Boston Strong was supposed to mean. I cheered on my fellow runners from the 30K mark in the 2014 marathon, confident in the belief that we wouldn’t let terrorists stop us from doing what we wanted to do or change us from who we were.
I didn’t think we were people who embraced violence. But now, this is how the story ends. With an eye for an eye.
I don’t discount that the jury had an incredibly hard job. I don’t discount that, according to federal death penalty law, with its balance of aggravating and mitigating factors, Tsarnaev’s crimes make him eligible for such a punishment.
I just don’t want that punishment to be the end of the story.
In Ancient Greek tragedies, the central character experiences a moment of recognition, in which he sees the error of his ways and accepts his fate. Despite the testimony of Sister Helen Prejean, who spoke on the witness stand this week of her conversations with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, there has been little observable evidence of the convicted bomber’s regret. Instead, jurors have watched Tszarnaev sit sullenly in court through hours of emotional testimony.
I understand why they might want vengeance. But I doubt it will give us closure—this ending that says that the city of Boston responds to senseless violence with even more violence.
I want something different. I want change. I want answers. As English-teacher-y as it sounds, I want a character arc. I want Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be alive for as long as it takes for him to realize that what he did was horrible and reprehensible and evil, and for him to explain why.
This isn’t fiction. It’s reality. But that doesn’t mean that, as a community, we don’t have control over how our story ends and what message it sends. Endings tell us who we are as people. Today, we’ve chosen to respond to death with more death, and that doesn’t give me closure. It just makes me sad.