The conviction of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev quietly sealed a chapter in this, the opening stages of what may become our long battle against terrorism on U.S. soil.
Tsarnaev heard his guilty verdicts – all 30 of them – including one for conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction – in open civilian court instead of in front of a military tribunal. And, today, nary a question has been raised as to whether the Kyrgyzstan immigrant’s case should have been tried in any other way.
Civilian court or military tribunal?
At the time of the Boston Marathon 2013 carnage, that was still a question for some. Initially, many Americans were angered when the White House announced that Tsarnaev would not be tried as an enemy combatant. Some of the furor dates back to arguments over the administration’s efforts to close Guantanamo and move detainees out of Cuba to be tried in U.S. federal court.
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Politicians, intent on bashing the Obama administration, kept up the argument that terrorists do not deserve the protections offered by our justice system and that trying them in open court would encourage more attacks upon America. This has not happened. The fact that Tsarnaev is a naturalized citizen mattered little. He was sworn in as a citizen just seven months before the bombing.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined the vocal proponents of military detention, insisting that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s possible ties to Islamic radicals overseas should nullify his rights as a citizen and that, at least initially, he should be held as an enemy combatant. Along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Graham, at one point, even questioned reading Tsarnaev his Miranda rights.
Today, with the trial concluded and Tsarnaev facing the possibility of the death penalty, the concerns seem overblown.
Slowly, almost unseen in the public’s perception, the federal government has shifted away from the Bush-era idea of reaching out to label people as enemy combatants in order to use military tribunals instead of federal courts. This is mainly because, as cases have wound through the U.S. courts, judges and juries have proven that they can handle the cases effectively.
First, let’s be clear. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a terrorist. His brother, Tamerlan, who did not survive the deadly rampage, was a terrorist. Their goals were heinous and meant to cause massive casualties.
By trying Tsarnaev in civil court, however, the U.S. proves to the world the strength of our democratic principles by allowing our court systems – with all of its protections for defendants and openness to public scrutiny – to prosecute such cases.
But it’s not only foreign threats to U.S. security that we will prosecute in this manner. According to a 2010 report by The Center on Law and Security [New York University of Law; Terrorist Trial Report Card: September 11, 2001-September 11, 2009] of the 804 defendants associated with terrorism that the report studied, 35 percent were U.S. citizens.
“Our research shows that in recent years there has been a strong trend, little noticed in the public debate, toward a more effective use of the criminal justice system,” the report noted. “Overall, the Justice Department has adopted a more disciplined approach, promising less in its public pronouncements and delivering more in the courtroom.”
Intelligence-gathering through the trials has not been undercut, the report noted, nor has the fear that classified information will become public been realized.
Justice for the Boston Marathon bombings has been swift, fair and perhaps most important, it occurred in open proceedings that media and, therefore, the general public could watch closely.
Surely, there is some solace in that fact for the victims and their families. The family members of the four people who died that day could be in the courtroom, along with people who lost limbs and their sense of safety.
When the charges against Tsarnaev were announced, Attorney General Eric Holder tried to quell critics, who wished to see him labeled an enemy combatant.
“We’ve once again shown that those who target innocent Americans and attempt to terrorize our cities will not escape from justice,” Holder said. “We will hold those who are responsible for these heinous acts accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
In Boston, at least, such justice has been done.