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Does Boston bombing suspect deserve the tag of ‘enemy combatant’?

Senators baying for Dzhokhar’s blood must know that every US national is entitled to have his day in court no matter how heinously criminal he proves to be

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News

A cabal of Republican senators has issued a statement urging the White House to classify the 19-year-old alleged Boston bomber an ‘enemy combatant’, a controversial designation abandoned by the Obama administration’s attorney-general in March 2009 on the basis that the US should “operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law” indicating that enemy combatant status is inherently illegal.

Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Peter King have yet to get with the post-George W. Bush programme announcing that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, currently recovering from gunshot wounds in Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, “clearly is a good candidate for enemy combatant status”. King told Politico his reasoning. “America is part of the battlefield. If you capture someone on the battleground, they should not be given the privilege of a civilian trial where they are given different rights ...”

It seems to me that in an earlier era of American history, those individuals would have been at the forefront of a ‘hang ’em high’ posse. As lawmakers they should be ashamed of trampling on the constitution which enshrines the rights of an American citizen which Tsarnaev became last year. Moreover, to my knowledge the US isn’t a country at war, with the exception of an ongoing conflict against the Afghan Taliban, and, therefore, terming its soil as “a battlefield” is a stretch too far. For all intents and purposes Obama has declared Bush’s ‘war on terror’ defunct; he’s replaced it with the less puerile ‘Overseas Contingency Operation’.

A question that comes to mind is this: If Tsarnaev had been an American-born non-Muslim named Smith or Jones, would those worthy senators have been so anxious to bury him in the bowels of some gulag? Or would a Mr Smith be treated as a criminal, read his Miranda rights before being judged by ‘twelve good men and true’.

Civil rights activists and the American Civil Liberties Union are concerned that when Tsarnaev was captured while hiding he was not given a Miranda warning under a public safety exception permitting interrogators to question a suspect without the presence of a lawyer.

As an enemy combatant, Tsarnaev could be a candidate for torture, open-ended incarceration and a military tribunal depriving him of his right to habeas corpus. Of course, there’s a temptation to say to oneself, “So what! Who cares about the rights of a cold-blooded mass murderer who willfully turned the site of a marathon into a scene of carnage?”

But what happened to the core value of most western judiciary systems, including America’s — innocent until proven guilty? Every American national, no matter how heinously criminal he proves to be, is entitled to have his day in court and US laws and courts are empowered to try terrorist suspects. For instance, French citizen Zacarias Moussaoui was tried and convicted in a federal court for conspiring to kill US citizens on 9/11 and is now serving a life sentence without parole in Colorado.

To date, there is no indication that the Tsarnaev brothers have links to foreign terrorist organisations. Indeed, the elder of the two, Tamerlan, had been questioned by the FBI in 2011 when he was considered clean. And subsequent to the tragic incident, authorities announced there was as yet no evidence suggesting others had been involved.

As for the younger Tsarnaev, he’s still an enigma. By all accounts — and I mean all — he was a typical all-American student, a sports-loving head of a wrestling team who was a member of a buddy organisation tasked with helping children with Down’s Syndrome. He was sociably outgoing, attended parties with fellow students and was considered reliable and helpful by everyone who knew him. He was bright enough to win a prestigious scholarship and ambitious as evid-enced by one of his social network pages where he described his goals as career and money.

His teachers and neighbours characterised him as a sweet, good natured boy who never got into trouble. Unless he is deserving of an Oscar, he certainly doesn’t fit the usual profile of a terrorist or sociopath. His friends are in shock because he never displayed any interest in politics and wasn’t particularly religious; they say he enjoyed living the American lifestyle and loved his adopted country. His parents are adamant that their sons could not have committed this crime “never, ever”.

In light of his impeccable background, if nothing else, he deserves to have his day in court and the American people deserve to know how and why did an exemplary young man who had everything going for him and everything to live for turn into Mr Jekyll overnight.

His Chechen antecedents have been much talked as figuring in his possible radicalisation, but if that were the case, then why did he turn his ire against America when surely Russia would have been a more obvious target?

Those senators baying for this American teenager’s blood should take into account the above anomalies before seeking to circumvent legal channels, a move that would further stain America’s reputation for fairness and justice, so cavalierly shredded during Bush’s terms in office when anyone of the Muslim faith was considered fair game.

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on 
Middle East affairs. She can be contacted