A New Englander’s view from Canada of the Tsarnaev hunt

It was just after midnight on Friday, April 19, that some friends and I arrived in Utica, New York, on our way to the Toronto area for the FilKONtario convention. We’d been driving for hours, and it was only then that we learned that an MIT campus patrol officer had been shot dead and a Mercedes had been carjacked in Cambridge. In the morning the news was even worse: Whole cities were in lockdown. It was widely proclaimed afterward that the instructions not to leave home were voluntary, but that wasn’t the impression I got from the news reports; and going by the pictures I saw of empty streets, it wasn’t the impression of the people living there. Harvard was closed, which affected the reporting of some work that I’m doing. A “voluntary lockdown” is a contradiction in terms. Cambridge, Belmont, Watertown, Newton, Brighton, and Allston were shut down tight. Brighton and Allston are parts of Boston; Belmont is officially a town and the other cities, but all are sizable municipalities.

The line we’re getting now is that hiding out in their houses was the most heroic thing residents could do, that it was necessary to leave “the police and Dzokhar Tsarnaev as the only pieces out on the board” — an expression which implies everyone else is just a pawn. Never mind that “giving the professionals room to work” failed, and it was only when people could get out again that one of those unprofessional pawns found the clues that led straight to a cowering would-be Joker (definitely not a G’Kar). Never mind that the vast quantity of photos provided by non-professionals at the Boston Marathon helped to build the trail of information. The only heroism ordinary people can aspire to is staying in their seats like good little boys and girls.

This was just one aspect of a campaign to inflate miserable murderers into rampaging, unstoppable monsters. What they (whether it was the Tsarnaevs or it ultimately turns out to be someone else) did was certainly vicious and horrible, but it’s not unprecedented. There have been many larger mass killings that didn’t prompt anything near the same reaction.

Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been charged with using a “weapon of mass destruction.” Seriously, a pressure cooker bomb is a WMD? I guess Saddam Hussein did have WMD’s after all, and they were lying in plain sight in Baghdad’s cafeteria kitchens. He wasn’t read his Miranda rights because that would somehow have endangered the public safety. Maybe they thought he had an implant triggered to the words of the warning? “You have the right to …” KABOOM! The only thing using absurd charges and breaking with due process can accomplish is to decrease the chances of getting a conviction and give his lawyers more issues to drag the trial out with.

The right thing to do is to investigate the Tsarnaevs’ actions impartially, find out as much as possible, and if there hasn’t been some spectacular error, to treat Dzokhar as the rotten criminal he is. Some members of Congress want him treated as an enemy combatant, which implies that the bombing in Boston was a military action. This gives them unearned glamor, glamor which may inspire some other frustrated bum to kill people spectacularly, just as the Boston bombers may have been feeding on the perverse glamor which the War on Terror has already built up. As an act of murder and maiming, it was horrible, but as an attack on America, it was pathetically feeble. Keeping a balance between these two perspectives is tricky. People anywhere close to the victims of any violent attack rightly regard it as a horrible thing, shattering their world; but it was no 9/11, no grand attack on America.

As I said before, the right thing is to mourn the dead, comfort the survivors (should have added that one the first time), find and punish the guilty, and continue with life.

3 Responses to “A New Englander’s view from Canada of the Tsarnaev hunt”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    He wasn’t read his Miranda rights because that would somehow have endangered the public safety. Maybe they thought he had an implant triggered to the words of the warning?

    I don’t see anything hard to understand about why reading Tsarnaev his Miranda rights could have endangered public safety, and I see no reason to ridicule the motivation in this way.

    At the time that Tsarnaev was captured it wasn’t clear whether his brother had contact with terrorist groups, and what knowledge Tsarnaev may have about such groups and other attacks they are planning. If he had such knowledge, and if reading him his Miranda rights could have dissuaded him from revealing it, that would have endangered public safety; and that was a reasonable possibility. The public safety exception to the Miranda precedent is a well-established legal principle, and I don’t see anything unreasonable about applying it in this case.

    There are of course those like Lindsay Graham who want to deny Tsarnaev a trial by declaring him a “enemy combatant”; that is outrageous (I loved your song, and it is a good answer to views like Graham’s). But you shouldn’t conflate that with the decision not to read Tsarnaev his rights.

    If Tsarnaev is given a trial – and as of now it looks likely that he will be – then anything he said without being read his rights cannot be used against him; I see no evidence that those who decided not to read him his rights did not recognize that. It’s possible and reasonable to recognize the importance of giving Tsarnaev a fair trial and still agree with the decision not to read him his rights.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      That’s not what the public safety exception is about. The case New York v. Quarles concerned a police officer’s immediately asking where an apprehended suspect’s gun was before doing anything else, because of the imminent need to locate it. It’s not about postponing an apprehended suspect’s interrogation about the charges against him in order to obtain hypothetical information about terrorist connections. On that basis, any accused person could be subjected to the same treatment; after all, they might know something about other criminal activities. Tsarnaev is reported to have given a confession during the period he wasn’t informed of his rights; that confession is very likely void because of the irregularity in his treatment. What the FBI did was just plain moronic, its only purpose being to satisfy politicians who want us to believe that due process stands in the way of our safety.

      • Eyal Mozes Says:

        Gary, I find it very difficult to follow your reasoning here. If Tsarnaev’s confession, which he made without being read his rights, were to be used as evidence in his trial, that would indeed be outrageous, and I’d completely share your anger about it. But you say the confession “is very likely void”, which I take to mean that you believe – as I do – that it will not be used as evidence in the trial. If that’s true, then not reading Tsarnaev his rights will be completely compatible with giving him a fair trial. So what’s the big problem with this?

        The FBI made a judgment-call here. On the one hand, they thought there’s a reasonable possibility that Tsarnaev might have information about terrorist organizations his brother was in contact with, and that getting this information from him is important. It’s still not completely clear, but it’s likely they were wrong about that. On the other hand, they judged that the evidence against Tsarnaev is already strong enough a confession from him is not needed as additional evidence, so not being able to use such confession at trial will not make it much harder to convict him. As far as I can tell they were almost certainly right about that.

        It may be open to debate whether they made the right call or not. As we learn more of the facts in the coming weeks and months, we may be able to judge that better. But I certainly don’t see any possible basis for calling the decision “just plain moronic”.

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