A 19-year-old naturalized American citizen is accused of committing a crime of violence in the United States, and a gaggle of elected officials are urging for him to be treated as an enemy combatant and placed in the hands of the military. Not just the usual right-wing suspects but Rep. Peter King, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. John McCain are leading the chorus.
Thankfully, President Barack Obama did not listen, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged in his hospital bed today by federal officials with using a weapon of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property. Civilian courts are more than capable of handling this case, and the rush to judgment by Messrs. King, Graham and McCain says much about the willingness of some to jettison the Constitution when it’s convenient.
No definite connection between the bombing and al-Qaida has been documented. Indeed, it’s not clear that Mr. Tsarnaev, who remains in serious but stable condition, has a link to any organized group, terrorist or otherwise.
The only details these elected officials know for certain is that the suspect is Muslim and that his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed Friday in a shootout with police, visited the Russian province of Dagestan last year. That rightly raises suspicions that the CIA, FBI and military are no doubt exploring in their interrogation of the teenager.
Are we really so distrustful of our own legal system that we think it’s incapable of dealing with someone who police believe helped set off the bombs at the Boston Marathon? When we already have numerous video recordings of the Tsarnaev brothers in the act? And witnesses to their other criminal behavior?
If our police, prosecutors and courts can’t mete out justice in a bombing case, how can we trust the legal systems for any murder or similar crime? Are the victims of those crimes less important? If it’s about the perpetrators’ political motivations, then what about Oklahoma City or the Unabomber or the various Ku Klux Klan attacks of years past?
Meanwhile, others in Washington are talking about holding up immigration reform because, after all, the Tsarnaevs were immigrants — ethnic Chechens who came to this country as kids in 2002 seeking political asylum from Kyrgyzstan. Apparently, the fact they weren’t born here may be seized on by some conservatives as an excuse to keep the measure off the Senate floor.
Of course, one can make just the opposite argument, as Senator Graham (clearly never shy about leaping to conclusions) has done. He says the incident is a reason to act quicker in order to bring 11 million people living here illegally out of the shadows. At least that’s logical, but again, why does the criminal behavior of two Massachusetts men with a load of black powder and nails decide the fate of U.S. policy of any sort?
Just as it seemed the media deserved a nod for their collective restraint in the reporting of last week’s Boston bombings, the investigation and the manhunt — a New York City tabloid and certain provinces of cable news excepted — the politicians are filling the void of irresponsibility. Is it really too much to ask for them to at least find out the truth behind the attacks before allowing the Tsarnaevs’ actions to redefine life in the United States?
The proper response to terrorism is never to panic. It is to react appropriately to the act, to deter similar behavior in the future and to bring those responsible to justice as swiftly as possible. Surely, we’ve learned this lesson enough by now. And Americans should be delighted with the timely actions of law enforcement in the Boston case — as well as President Obama’s clear-eyed endorsement of the rule of law.
But what happens when a couple of psychopaths with a few hundred dollars in supplies from a hardware store elicit some over-the-top response from Congress or others with a voice in national affairs? Sadly, it may very well send a message that more than 11 years post-9/11, the United States is vulnerable to attack — and not just the kind plotted by sophisticated international terrorist groups but perhaps from aggrieved people who just crave attention.
We won’t speculate on the exact motivations behind the bombings or whether there’s a substantial overseas connection. We can wait to hear the evidence. Surely, elected officials can do the same. To act otherwise is not only to invite future acts of terrorism but to erode public faith in our founding principles and most specifically in a criminal justice system that has served this nation well. Civilian prosecutors and courts have brought innumerable murderers of every race, creed and religious faith to justice under the protections of a time-tested Constitution we should not be nearly so anxious to circumvent.