Jean Trounstine : Compassion Cannot Be Piecemeal

Compassion cannot be piecemeal. Image from NPR.

Reflections on the past week:
Compassion cannot be piecemeal

Justice does not mean mercy. That I know. But justice must be tempered by mercy.

By Jean Trounstine | The Rag Blog | April 24, 2013

BOSTON — This was a difficult week to be a prison activist in Boston, Massachusetts. Just as it was undoubtedly difficult to work for the rights of immigrants and the mentally ill. It was a week in Boston where four lives were lost and more than 260 wounded by a truly senseless act of violence allegedly committed by two young men bent on something we do not yet understand.

And the last thing anyone wanted to discuss was how we need to make sure Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gets a fair trial and is not mistreated behind bars.

As I listened to the cheering on the night that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was caught, watched television and saw all our officials expressing hopes and prayers for the 58, many who, as of today, are being released from the hospital, I thought of moments from the past week.

My students had told me stories: one went to the hospital to visit her ailing uncle in the Brigham and Women’s ICU when those who had lost limbs were wheeled in; another rushed from Lowell into Boston to try and find her father because she didn’t know if he’d been hurt; and a Vietnam vet who had gone to see the Red Sox got lost on his way home because of the confusion.

A friend’s husband saw his company’s restaurant’s windows blown out, just across the street from the grandstand at the finish line; a friend’s son who had been in New York and close to the tragedy of 9/11 was about to get on the above-ground subway and instead turned around when he heard screams nearby.

A friend still doesn’t have hearing back in one ear.

It was a very unsettling experience to feel that our houses, our business, our institutions, and our loved ones in the city we call home, could be unsafe.

And yet, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is 19. He is the age of the students I teach. He went to U Mass Dartmouth and wanted to go into the medical profession. In fact, for whatever reason, he was seen at U Mass in his dorm, just two days after the horrific act he is accused of perpetrating with his brother.

He had friends. He supposedly had a girlfriend. He is, and I say it again, a student. I do not want him to be mistreated in prison; I do not want him to get the death penalty. I do not want any less for him than I want for any of the prisoners who commit heinous acts and live behind bars.

For most of them, I want change, believe they are capable of transformation, and deserve options behind bars. Perhaps it is even more important to hold to our values when it gets personal. If my loved one had lost a limb, I would want revenge and I would feel hatred, but I also want legislation that is not built on emotions.

Justice does not mean mercy. That I know. But justice must be tempered by mercy. As we send out love to all the victims and their families in Texas and in Massachusetts, I hope we can remember the family of the Tsarnaevs.

I hope we can remember that everyone who enters our criminal justice system has a story. Just like the doctors who labor to heal all who are hurt — no matter what the injured have done or who they are — we too, need to keep in our hearts that compassion cannot be piecemeal.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s alleged acts were evil, but can we really say that he is only the sum of this horrible crime?

[Jean Trounstine is an author/editor of five published books and many articles, professor at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, and a prison activist. For 10 years, she worked at Framingham Women’s Prison and directed eight plays, publishing Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison about that work. She blogs for Boston Magazine and takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick at jeantrounstine.com where she blogs weekly at “Justice with Jean.” Find her contributions to The Rag Blog here.]

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