Tsarnaev trial: Constitutional answer to Republican fear of democracy

The trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev…has already been a success. The community learned important new details of the bombing, and drew a step nearer to putting the traumatic week of the bombing and Watertown manhunt in the rearview mirror. Just as important, by showing the world that terror suspects can get a fair trial, the proceedings have helped restore some global respect for American justice — and vindicated the Obama administration’s decision to keep him within the conventional justice system from the beginning.

It’s easy to forget that just after Tsarnaev’s arrest, the administration came under criticism for failing to ship Tsarnaev off to military detention. New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, along with colleagues John McCain and Lindsey Graham, called for the administration to take Tsarnaev into military custody, rather than charge the suspected bomber in civilian courts. The legal arguments against the senators’ position have been thoroughly aired already, but the advantages of civilian trials are not solely procedural. Should another domestic terror attack like the Marathon bombing strike the United States, the Tsarnaev trial should stand as an example of why keeping terror suspects in the normal justice system is preferable for the communities they target, too…

…No harm has come to national security from treating Tsarnaev, who is a US citizen, as a conventional defendant. Reading him his Miranda rights, a step bemoaned by the senators, did not hamper the case. On the contrary, the United States avoided the needless, self-inflicted black eye that would have come had authorities skirted established protections for criminal defendants. And the jury’s verdict…will have a credibility that would have been lacking had Tsarnaev been subject to military detention and interrogation first.

The fixation on putting domestic terrorism suspects into military custody reflects a longstanding obsession of McCain and Graham, and as long as they continue to beat that drum, civilian trials like Tsarnaev’s will need defending. The good that has come from holding an open, fair, and untainted trial in the United States, near the scene of the crime, cannot be underestimated. It’s unfortunate that the senators tried to derail this healthy constitutional process, but hopefully the Tsarnaev trial will serve as a reminder of its value.

No one argues that a system of trial by jury, peers determined mostly by geography and economics, is faultless. There are a number of things that can go wrong – starting with corrupt police and prosecutors. Regardless, the system works a lot better than anything else our nation has tried.

The system certainly works a lot better than torture and inquisition, the favorites of leading Republicans. Though McCain and Graham, Ayotte and other long-standing conservatives, often offer opportunist blather catering to the Tea Party faction of today’s Republican Party, their opposition to public trials is a reflection of a conservative theme more elitist than lynch mobs. And like most self-concerned politicians, I doubt they will admit their foolishness now that the Marathon Bombing trial is beyond the stage of guilt or innocence.

I’ll keep my opinion on capital punishment separate from this post. It’s radical enough to be a distraction.

The point remains that today’s conservatives continue their disservice to traditions rooted in our Constitution. All that revulsed American colonists about what passed for justice from 18th Century English law would be returned to power by reactionary fools like Graham and McCain if they had their way. If they get their way, someday.

Trial by jury, the right to confront accusers, the right to a timely trial, habeas corpus – were significant standards raised before the whole world by the American revolution. It is too kind to call politicians who would turn their back on this part of our history – fools. Their corruption runs deeper than that.

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