January 30

You would think — at least, I thought — that the Obama administration, liberal to the point of being accused of socialism, would not impose the death penalty. It is the sine qua non of lack of thought, a medieval tick of the political right, a murder in the name of murder that does absolutely no good, unless it is to validate the killers’ belief in killing. Yet Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the government will seek the death penalty in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 20-year-old accused of the Boston Marathon bombing. This was a horrible crime which will now be compounded by yet another one.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Robin Young/Associated Press)
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Robin Young/Associated Press)

It is, of course, required that I now state that Tsarnaev is evil. I suppose he is — evil being the word we use when we cannot comprehend the crime. He killed and he maimed, taking lives and ruining others for many years to come. There is no way he can ever make amends, and the truth is if he dies, he will not be missed — not by me, at any rate.

But his death, as one of his victims has already said, is not going to change anything. “It’s not going to change what happened,” said Lee Ann Yanni, 32, one of those wounded that day. “I really don’t think there is a right or wrong in this situation. It’s not going to bring anybody back.” It is, however, going to perpetuate the death penalty, which is on its way out in much of the world and even the United States. We don’t even know anymore how to execute someone — witness the prolonged and allegedly agonizing death of Dennis McGuire, who recently took over 20 minutes to die.

Amazingly enough, the decision by Holder was announced a week or so after he reiterated his personal opposition to the death penalty. How he’s reconciled his personal views with his public policies I cannot know — and, I bet, neither can he.

Was he following orders from the boss? That would only be President Obama, because that’s the only one he reports to.

Was he reluctant to overrule his subordinates, especially the U.S. attorney in Boston? They might have pushed for the death penalty. If so, he ought to reconsider why he is the AG and not them. He’s where the buck stops.

Or was he reluctant to stand up against charges that he is soft on terrorism? Undoubtedly, some in the Republican Party would say that — some Democrats, too, I suppose — but this is just an updated version of “soft on communism” — an opportunity for some politicians to take a cheap shot and others to show that political cowardice never goes out of style.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.