When the drama in Boston first started to unfold – when the bombs had gone off but there weren’t yet suspects being discussed on television and the internet – I considered posting something along the lines of “I’m sure we’ll find who did this and bring them to justice.” Instead, I waited to see what would unfold. I’m glad I did.
In the United States, “bringing someone to justice” is starting to take on a decidedly macabre connotation. More often than not, it does not refer to imprisonment, trial, and reasoned judgment. It means death. In this case, with the elder Tsarnaev dead and the younger shot through the throat, that was very nearly case.
And there are plenty of people who are comfortable with that. On Facebook and other social media, just after the event, there was both an outpouring of support for the victims and for the city, and a number of revenge-oriented memes, most of which promised swift and mob-approved violence. After the attacks, I feel like I’m left with more questions than answers. Here are a few.
1. Does anyone remember Anwar al-Awlaki?
This week, Senator Lindsay Graham proposed classifying Dzhokar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant on the grounds that he seemed to have Chechen separatist (i.e. jihadiist) sympathies. While President Obama swiftly quashed this idea, it’s nevertheless a deeply troubling one.
Anwar al-Awlaki was an American-born extremist, a citizen, who called on his fellow radicals to attack the United States. He may have had some planning capacity, but mainly he was responsible for recruitment and spiritual support. In late 2011, he was killed without trial in Yemen. His political activities warranted him classification as an enemy combatant, we were told.
Tsarnaev is a naturalized citizen, and the proposal to classify him as an enemy combatant would have been even worse. He seems to have no link to organized terror or foreign direction. At any rate, he has his citizenship, and he committed his crimes on American soil seemingly of his own volition.
We used to have a word for Americans who struck at their homeland in the hopes of destroying it: traitors. They were charged with treason, and subjected to the judicial code, which promises punishments up to and including death. But crucially, we still have to try them in court because they are American citizens.
If we can classify anyone we choose as an ‘enemy combatant’ – merely because of speech or thought – then both the words ‘enemy’ and ‘combatant’ become meaningless. If an enemy is merely anyone who disagrees with “us” (whoever “us” might be) then it’s entirely feasible for American citizens to be enemy combatants – and the idea of American citizenship and the rights thereof is also rendered completely moot.
2. Why Guns?
Dzhokar Tsarnaev was not read his Miranda Rights at first, on the grounds that he constituted a ‘public safety exception.’ Considering that we just covered the exceptions to the First Amendment and their impact on the rest of your Constitutional rights, it seems like Tsarnaev’s exceptions are stacking up.
These both represent compromised rights – rights that exist, but which are not absolute. And we are accepting them. Why, then, was there such an outcry when it looked like Second Amendment rights were going to be regulated?
Keep in mind, no one’s taking away any guns. The most publicized blow to the gun-safety cause was an amendment that would have expanded background checks to internet sales. Since it failed, felons and the mentally ill can still get guns over the internet – it would be a crime, presumably, but one that could not be enforced until it’s too late.
So, with our First and Fifth Amendment rights spiraling out int the ether, when did the ownership of a killing machine become the de facto bellwether of whether or not we are free? Freedom, to me, means due process under the law and the right to speech and exchange of ideas. It means some other things too – a certain level of privacy, and the means to escape crushing poverty – but I’m not clear on why politicians have seized on ownership of a gun as the primary symbol of freedom.
Worse, expansion of healthcare is seen as the primary mechanism through with unfreedom (slavery isn’t the word I want) is advanced.
A thought: in a democracy, in which the government is largely selected by me and my peers, mere largeness of government isn’t enough to make me unfree. If a government expands to cover healthcare because private companies are unwilling to do so, that’s a legitimate expansion. If it expands to prevent other government agencies from taking away my citizenship rights, then that’s a legitimate expansion. Government only does what we let it do; if it’s doing things that endanger our more crucial rights, then whether or not I can pack heat is a moot point.
That’s why I wanted to end here: there is something we can do. We can throw out “leaders” who treat the English language like it’s a politically expedient word salad. Graham is guilty of this, as is Marco Rubio to a lesser extent. (See here for excerpts from a fundraising letter that seems to be a list of Romney-era buzzwords that I’ve already covered. Job creators?)
We can’t let the language of freedom become meaningless. It’s true, there’s no big First Amendment lobby like there is with guns. There’s no book manufacturer creating book scares to drive up sales and prices like there is with guns. But our rights to speak and be treated fairly when we’re suspected of crimes are more crucial than our rights to kill one another with a few ounces of hot metal. And we can’t forget that.