Handling the Tsarnaevs

Sometimes, the systems that we love in theory seem objectionable when actually put to the test, and we let them slip and fall by the wayside. All too often, when it comes to criminal justice, we are over-eager to forget about our laws and principles in the name of vengeance. It’s easier to assume guilt from a suspect in a violent crime, easier to deny the convicted their rights in the name of security, easier to treat every suspect as an exception. Fortunately, sometimes we get things right.

The case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could have been another dark mark on our history, another case where our worst instincts could have gotten the better of us. From the calls on Fox News for Tsarnaev to be stripped of his citizenship, tortured, and tried by military tribunal, those instincts rang loud and clear. Plenty seemed hungry for blood.

Calmer heads do,however, sometimes prevail. That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be tried in a civilian court should come as a surprise to no one, and so it’s alarming that there had to be any clarification at all. What about his crime would make it non-civilian? Accused mass-murderers, even bombers, have been tried in civilian courts before, their crimes do not mandate special treatment, and so it is unclear how Tsarnaev’s case is different. Somehow, the words ‘radical Islam’ changes.

This case could have been precedent-setting, a return to the worst of McCarthyism. Citizenship could have become conditional on behavior, civilians could have been subjected to military tribunals for certain crimes, and Islam could have been further demonized. Certainly that’s a goal that some still hold. But they have, for the moment, been defeated.

I’ve been disappointed in many ways by the way the US has handled accused terrorists, but this is not one of them. We killed Anwar al-Aulaqi, a US citizen, in a way that I find horrendously objectionable. We still have far too little oversight over drone strikes, as efficient and effective as they may be. Guantanamo is still open, more than five years after President Obama promised to have it closed. Our failures, as a nation, are many, and our leaders seem disinclined to do anything about it. But this time, on this one case, we haven’t failed.

If anything, this case has shown that our legal system can, and does, work. Already, three others possibly involved with the bombing have been arrested, all without violating Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s rights. It didn’t take torture, it didn’t even take circumventing Miranda. Civilian law enforcement is alive and well, and it can handle domestic crimes.

I hope this translates into better policies across the board, a real commitment to maintaining civil liberties. I doubt it will, but it at least isn’t a step in the other direction. There will still be a similar conversation any time a similar act of terror is committed, and Islamophobia will continue to run rampant, but at least things haven’t gotten worse in the legal system. Due process is still a guarantee, for American citizens at least.

The legal issues around this case may seem small in comparison to other egregious violations of basic liberties, but they are fundamental nonetheless. The objections to killing Americans abroad without trial, to the existence of Guantanamo and other CIA ‘black sites,’ and to torture emanate from our fundamental principles with regards to liberty. Protecting these liberties at every possible instance is absolutely necessary. Protecting them in more familiar situations, at home and in the courts, is necessary for us to project them into the unfamiliar, as in drone strikes in Yemen.

The demagoguery is far from over, even if it appears to be winding down in the Tsarnaev case. This fight will happen again and again; our liberties will continue to be tested. But it is a step. We faced a tragedy and refused to bend, refused to let it bring out our inner demons. An act of terror failed to cause chaos, we’ve shown that it could be contained by our criminal justice system. Liberty and security have been shown to be compatible. By respecting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s rights, by treating him as the American that he is, we’ve shown that our systems, of rights and of law, are stronger than his terror. This has been a victory for our laws and our legal framework, one that we shouldn’t forget.

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