In the aftermath of the terrible bombings in Boston, President Obama was his usual eloquent self. “One thing we do know”, he declared, “is that whatever hateful agenda drove these men to such heinous acts will not, cannot prevail. Whatever they thought they could ultimately achieve, they’ve already failed”.
The trouble, of course, is that the President wasn’t just eloquent. He was also wrong.
In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, the media launched itself into a fevered frenzy. Backed by right-wing fanatics, some elements in the media invented and targeted suspects, fuelling the maelstrom of misinformation, defaming the individual in question, and substituting stereotyping for news reporting.
When two suspects were identified, an entire city was shut down, and its inhabitants were forced to spend a day cowering in their houses, listening to reverse 911 calls, and being told that their city was under siege by two bombers, one of whom was then killed in a shoot-out with law enforcement.
During this day of what amounted to martial law, the police went house to house, door to door as the media hyperventilated and the calls for drastic action against terrorists and terrorism grew ever shriller. People are willing to accept these reactions reminiscent of a police state, but refuse to countenance the most modest of gun control measures, and would likely be upset of similarly drastic reaction was taken in relation to the school or other shootings in cities and communities which claim far, far more lives every year than acts of terrorism.
When police finally arrested the suspect, they decided not to read him his rights, invoking a “public safety exception”. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain not only called for the suspect to be denied his Miranda Rights, but also argued that the U.S. citizen should be categorised as an “enemy combatant” and should not be permitted to see a lawyer.
A Republican New York State Senator went a step beyond arguing that we should strip a citizen of his rights, and advocated the use of torture, inciting violence, while an Arkansan colleague suggested that the bombing in Boston and the subsequent police takeover of the city was an argument for less gun control.
The ACLU, an important protector of our civil liberties, reacted to these troubling developments by writing, “Every criminal defendant is entitled to be read Miranda rights. The public safety exception should be read narrowly. It applies only when there is a continued threat to public safety and is not an open-ended exception to the Miranda rule. Additionally, every criminal defendant has a right to be brought before a judge and to have access to counsel. We must not waver from our tried-and-true justice system, even in the most difficult of times. Denial of rights is un-American and will only make it harder to obtain fair convictions”.
We are already scrambling up and down a slippery slope, on which the denial of rights has gone from seeming to be a very un-American thing to the most American of things when national security snaps its fingers. We have a whole set of overseas prisons, and reams of mangled legal advice which are based on the need to keep people away from our justice system, to allow them to be tortured or otherwise abused, or to be despatched to other countries to do our dirty work for us. We live under a Patriot Act which grants far broader powers to our domestic and foreign security apparatus—an apparatus which itself makes free use of terrorist tools—than any gun control or healthcare or financial oversight measure would grant to benign public organs.
To whom else will this public safety exception be extended in the future? How many other people will suddenly find themselves trapped by the ever-expanding definitions of terrorism, terrorists, or enemy combatants? Is a person a national security threat if they say that our President and his predecessor are guilty of crimes against humanity and should face justice for these crimes? Is it inconceivable that someone who questions the tactics of the C.I.A. or the military might find themselves treated as a menace? What would have happened had a citizen of Boston refused to open their door to the police?
Many of us feel that terrorism should be treated as an issue for law enforcement, and that law enforcement agencies, rather than our militarised intelligence services, should tackle what are essentially crimes of a domestic or international character. Instead, the trend that we see now is that law enforcement—the people who are supposed to police our communities and serve people living in those communities—is adopting the harsh, unfit, and liberty-eroding methods of those intelligence services.
The President remarked that the bombers failed “because the people of Boston refused to be intimidated. They failed because as Americans we refuse to be terrorised. They failed because we will not waive from the character, and the compassion, and the values that define us as a country, nor will we break the bonds that hold us together as Americans”.
But of course the people of Boston were intimidated. They hid in their homes. The media whipped up a storm of fear, and an entire city was terrorised. Whatever the bluster after the fact, this crime against the citizens of Boston, like those in New York which preceded them, have very much altered our national character for the worse, diminished our compassion, and obliterated the values that we imagine define us as a country. The instant spatter of Islamophobic commentary, the nasty comments about “Boston liberals”, and the fearmongering from those on the right who enable the explosive growth of our national security machine, all suggest that the bonds that should hold our country and our communities together are already badly frayed.
There are those who believe that people who defend the rights of those accused of terrible violence do so because they sympathise with that violence, or out of some perverse embrace of culprits. The real motivation lies in a longer view, well expressed by H. L. Mencken, who noted that “the trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all”.
I fear that however our sagging justice system handles Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, terror has already won a great victory.