The recent bombings in Boston brought out the best and the worst of the American public. In attempts to unite in response to senseless violence, social media users and journalists highlighted the resilience of Bostonians and the futility of any potential terrorist attack on the city. People around the world, most notably in Syria, where deadly bombings occur daily, expressed support and sympathy, and reports emerged of everyday heroes who put their own lives in jeopardy to help out others during the Boston Marathon. However, these expressions of bravado and solidarity masked certain uglier responses that emerged after the bombings, ones that threaten the core principles of justice and fairness that our flawed but great nation tries so hard to uphold.
Previous trials involving alleged terrorists have taken on an air of exceptionalism, in which civil liberties are suspended in the name of national security or some collective sense of revenge justice. However, such attempts, especially during trials of American citizens held in Guantanamo, have undermined certain crucial aspects of our justice system, and a federal trial of the younger bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as an “enemy combatant” would have set a disastrous precedent regarding a defendant’s right to a fair trial in the United States.
Like other people who have been accused of crimes involving mass violence, Tsarnaev has not benefited from our supposed mantra of innocent until proven guilty. According to accounts, Tsarnaev was not informed of his Miranda rights before questioning, as authorities instead invoked the so-called public-safety exception to arrest proceedings. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and people like John Ashcroft, a legal advocate who championed anti-terrorism efforts under President George W. Bush, have sparked intense debate over whether Tsarnaev should have been Mirandized and whether his responses to interrogation should be admissible in court.
These elements will complicate our execution of justice in his case, but we have the chance to set the record straight and do this trial right, putting into practice our own ideals of justice for all.
We have a dangerous tendency in the face of violence to respond not only with hatred but with fear. That fear presents the greatest risk to our justice system; even in cases of drug possession or other minor offenses, we tend to over-punish and over-incarcerate rather than seek a reparative remedy that might restore the defendant to society and offer a non-criminal, non-violent path. In the case of alleged acts of terrorism, we respond with brute force, preferring to kill people rather than letting them speak.
After Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, people clamored for a federal trial that would have carried the option of sentencing him to death. The answer cannot be to forego civil rights or judicial proceedings for the sake of expediency or vengeance; to conduct a dishonorable trial would be to dishonor the victims of this tragedy and their families, who deserve the best form of justice we can offer.
Another ugly consequence of last week’s events has been the backlash against immigrants, particularly of Middle Eastern or Muslim background, which has produced easy-to-spot complications for civil rights. In the past week, several accounts have emerged of Muslim and Middle Eastern people, even those who had suffered injuries due to the bombs, being unduly harassed. It is no more acceptable to pull someone aside for walking while Muslim or Middle Eastern than it is to pull someone aside for walking while black. Our law enforcement officers always face challenges when investigating particularly heinous crimes; we must continue to hold them accountable, however, and ensure that innocent citizens, residents, and visitors are not treated badly for crimes they did not commit. I would hate to see all the good work of our nation’s law enforcement officers undermined yet again due to issues of prejudice or profiling.
We must keep this situation in perspective and not let acts of violence undermine our staunch principles. People speak of fear and terror as the ultimate terrorist goal, but if we forsake our own constitutional principles, then I submit that that is the best victory for anyone who seeks to undermine our country. Our system is faulty; we consistently see reports of cases in which the justice system has failed people or cannot provide a satisfactory outcome due to its limitations. We are so lucky that we do not experience such horrific events on a daily basis as people do elsewhere, and we must demonstrate the power of our rule of law by adhering to our own judicial principles and not letting revenge get in the way of justice.