On Monday, federal prosecutors charged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with “using a weapon of mass destruction” in the bombings at the Boston Marathon. The accompanying documents offered a look at details in the chilling tale, Tsarnaev coldly deploying the backpack containing the bomb. He survived the ensuing manhunt. His older brother and accomplice did not. What emerges from the charges is just how quickly and painstakingly the FBI and local authorities worked, among other things, sorting through the voluminous video and photographic information.
Now Tsarnaev will be tried in the federal courts, where the case belongs and the country has been well served in the handling of terrorism cases.
Listen to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and others, and you are invited to think the country would benefit from initially treating Tsarnaev as an “enemy combatant,” interrogating him without the presence of a defense attorney, pumping him for information about terrorist networks and related matters. Graham has argued it would be “unconscionable” to fail to do so. He would apply the enemy status for at least 30 days.
The complication is, there is little to show that Tsarnaev fits the description. According to the law, the United States is engaged in a conflict with al-Qaida and affiliates. Tsarnaev and his brother trace their roots to Chechnya. They appear to have embraced radical Islam, to lesser or greater degrees. Nothing so far indicates they are part of a larger effort, linked to al-Qaida in some way.
More, Tsarnaev is a naturalized American citizen. If the courts have yet to rule on the constitutionality of holding citizens arrested on American soil as enemy combatants, the spirit of the Constitution is plain. Citizens deserve the due process of the law, or what so many admire about this country, what has provided moral authority.
Sen. Graham argues that the questioning of Tsarnaev would be more effective if he were treated as an enemy combatant, an intelligence official in position to build a better rapport and thus extract more valuable information. What the record shows is that FBI and other interrogators within the criminal justice system are most effective, acting within the rules of the courts and with less risk of jeopardizing prosecutions.
Add the performance of civilian courts in bringing terrorists to justice, and the argument for the route of “enemy combatant” weakens further. More than 430 defendants have been convicted of terrorism offenses since September 2001, many now long behind bars, including Richard Reid, the “shoe-bomber,” and Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to attack the New York City subway system.
The federal courts reflect the fairness, openness and accountability at the core of our concept of justice. They project the strengths the country should express in responding to terrorism.