By Sam Killenberg
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture on April 19 immediately incited a furious debate: Should the government try the Boston bombing suspect as a US criminal and read him his Miranda rights, or try him an enemy combatant, giving the government the ability to torture him for information and try him before a military tribunal?
Conservative New York state senator Greg Ball set off a firestorm on Twitter hours after Tsarnaev’s capture by tweeting, “So, scum bag #2 in custody. Who wouldn’t use torture on this punk to save more lives?” Republican Senate leaders John McCain and Lindsey Graham were quick to agree with Ball, saying that “the last thing we should want is for [Tsarnaev] to remain silent.”
For a while, the government listened to this version of the rhetoric. The “public safety exception,” established in 1984 Supreme Court case New York v. Quarles, allowed police to question Tsarnaev for several days without notifying him of his Miranda rights. By all accounts, the accused bomber was cooperative. But when he was finally informed of his right to remain silent and to have an attorney, people howled. Sure enough, after Tsarnaev was granted a public defender, he clammed up. Conservatives lashed out against the government’s decision, claiming we could learn more from the suspect if we classified him as an enemy combatant and subjected him to torture.
Like it or not, however, Tsarnaev is a United States citizen who should be treated as a suspect in a crime perpetrated on United States soil. While the evidence is overwhelmingly against him, he has the Constitutional right to defend himself in civilian court. Tsarnaev says he can’t afford a lawyer, so he was appointed one. His silence, while vexing to people who wish they could “torture the punk”, is a right granted to all citizens who are accused of crimes.
Whether we as a nation torture our fellow citizens has implications that go beyond Tsarnaev’s case. It seems inconsistent that those who speak most ardently about the founding fathers and the purity of the Constitution are many of the same people willing to give law enforcement absolute authority to do as they will with suspects. Beyond the fact that torture can force false confessions, the ability of the FBI to detain citizens without granting them their basic protections against self-incrimination is a slippery slope to a police state. The reason we have Miranda rights in the first place is to prevent the loss of our Bill of Rights protections. If we allow law enforcement to make up their own rules regarding interrogation techniques, the temptation to use any means to achieve their ends could grow too great.
While there is little doubt that Tsarnaev is guilty, he has the right to his day in court. More importantly, the American people deserve to see him convicted by lawful means.
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