There is a well-known exchange recorded in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars about how to handle those who resisted Athens’ imperial designs. More specifically, the debate centers on whether to put those to death who, though hostile to empire, did not join the revolt. Presumably Thucydides placed the debate over the fate of the Mytilenes here as a prefiguration of the anarchy that would reign throughout the Peloponnese once full-scale war was joined. He wanted us to listen particularly carefully to the words of one Diodotus who argues against putting the Mytilenes to death:
Consider what a mistake you would be making on this very point, if you took Cleon’s advice. As things are now, in all the cities the democracy is friendly to you; either it does not join in with the oligarchies in revolting, or, if it is forced to do so, it remains all the time hostile to the rebels, so that when you go to war with them, you have the people on your side. But if you destroy the democratic party at Mytilene, who never took any hand in the revolt and who, as soon as they got arms, voluntarily gave the city up to you, you will first of all be guilty of killing those who have helped you, and, secondly, you will be doing exactly what the reactionary classes want most. For now, when they start a revolt, they will have the people on their side from the beginning, because you have already made it clear that the same punishment is laid down both for the guilty and the innocent. In fact, however, even if they were guilty, you should pretend that they were not, in order to keep on your side the one element that is still not opposed to you. It is far more useful to us, I think, in preserving our empire, that we should voluntarily put up with injustice than that we should justly put to death the wrong people. As for Cleon’s point – that in this act of vengeance both justice and self-interest are combined – this is not a case where such a combination is at all possible (III:47).
Diodotus takes the position, in other words, that a greater risk is posed by putting to death the wrong people than by sparing the guilty. And, just to make matters perfectly clear, Diodotus then adds: “I call upon you, therefore, to accept my proposal as the better one. Do not be swayed too much by pity or by ordinary decent feelings. I, no more than Cleon, wish you to be influenced by such emotions” (III:48).
Much will be made in the coming days and months of how those who oppose the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are “soft on crime,” or that they are “letting their emotions get the better of them.” Justice must be served. Yet, as Diodotus makes clear above, if nowhere else then at least in matters of justice, emotions should play no role whatsoever. What is at stake — and this was Thucydides’ narrative intention all along — is the soul of a people, of a civilization. When we put another person to death, it says something about us, about who we are.
In the end, capital punishment was meted out on the Mytilenes. What is remarkable, I think, is that this passage and this text was composed in the fifth century BCE and that its message has stood as a warning to all those who have read it from the fifth century to our own. What kind of civilization are we? What kind of people are we? Forget Mr Tsarnaev. He is a miserable excuse for a human being. He showed what he thinks about human life. Very little. But, if Diodotus is to be believed, then whether or not we carry out the death sentence has nothing whatsoever to do with Mr Tsarnaev. It is about us. Who are we? Who are we becoming?