05/12/2013 03:01 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2013

Bombers and Barbarians

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"We are not barbarians. We bury the dead."

Gary Gemme, police chief in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a plain-spoken law enforcement officer whose plaintive appeal for a burial site for the body of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev could be an epigram for our contemporary struggle with acts of utter depravity and the vengeance they unleash.

Tsarnaev's body is now buried in Virginia thanks to the intervention of a very brave woman, Martha Mullen, who acted in response to news reports that scores of cemeteries had refused the burial. A pastoral counselor who happens to be Methodist, she contacted the Islamic Society of Greater Richmond to help with the burial. Now she copes with the ugly backlash from her humane intervention in this sad and tragic affair.

What has become of us, America? We feel justifiable outrage when innocent people are torn apart by acts of evil perpetrated by minds infested with sick ideas and murderous purpose. We have the right to apprehend, try, convict and punish criminals for their horrible acts against human life. Retribution is a moral principle of justice that recognizes the need for the administration of punishment in proportion to the crime.

Vengeance, however, is a different matter entirely. Retribution is the act of a court; vengeance is the act of a mob. Retribution recognizes the moral need for punishment; vengeance exacts its own form of payback well beyond the rational processes of law.

The thirst for vengeance corrupts our moral sensibilities, eroding the foundations of this society in progressive concepts of law and justice, opening the potential for anarchy by suggesting that the existing structures and processes for justice can and should be by-passed in favor of individual actions of revenge. Small wonder that this nation is arming itself to the teeth, and the NRA gets away with the rhetoric of vigilantism.

The excessive thirst for vengeance, the increasingly loud fear-mongering, the quest to arm all citizens, the vituperative hatred of government -- these are symptoms of a sickness that will be increasingly destabilizing as our society grows even more diverse. If we are to have any hope for a more peaceful, more secure future, we must confront and cure this sickness with more rational, more moral responses to the acts of evil that afflict us.

The Tsarnaev brothers committed an atrocious, evil act against humanity. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died by the very violence he perpetrated. Refusing to bury his body, harassing those who made his burial possible, does not make America stronger. Indeed, the controversy with so much ugly rhetoric only deepens the hatred among those twisted minds who see our slide into vengeance as a resounding call to arms.

We cannot become barbarians like them. As a society dedicated to the best ideals of law and justice, we must work harder to keep our dignity intact and our moral sensibilities strong even in the face of great provocation. We must bury the dead, and pray for the living.