By Juan Cole
This piece was first published on Juan Cole’s website, Informed Comment.
Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain (or as I refer to them, LindJohn) have demanded that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev be charged as an enemy combatant rather than tried as an American civilian.
This attempt to sidestep the U.S. Constitution by creating an alternative jurisdiction, and to try civilians in military courts, is a stride toward dictatorship. It is precisely the tactic used by Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and the demand that the military stop arresting and trying civilians has been central to the country’s revolutionary reform movement.
Likewise, Bahrain has started trying civilians in military courts, as part of its authoritarian crackdown on its protest movement.
That exemplar of human rights, the Uganda regime, also resorts to this practice. So LindJohn want to put us in some pretty classy company.
We who already have some of the liberties that youth Egyptians yearn for should not be so quick to surrender them. Tsarnaev is an American citizen and a civilian who killed and injured people on American soil. He is a murderer, and should be tried in the courts like a whole host of others who committed or plotted murder as a means to terrorizing the public.
The point seems obvious to anyone to the left of Attila the Hun. Those who point to the Civil War are confusing ordinary times with times of martial law. We’re not having a civil war and there is no martial law.
But here’s another consideration.
Paul Kevin Curtis stands accused (we don’t know if he is guilty) of sending a ricin-poisoned letter to President Barack Obama.
Obama is not just any civilian but is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.
So if anyone should be charged as an enemy combatant, it should be Curtis. Yet senators McCain and Graham have not suggested that step.
Peter Bergen sagely writes that an “FBI study reported that between January 1, 2007, and October 31, 2009, white supremacists were involved in 53 acts of violence, 40 of which were assaults directed primarily at African-Americans, seven of which were murders and the rest of which were threats, arson and intimidation. Most of these were treated as racially motivated crimes rather than political acts of violence, i.e. terrorism.”
He points out that in December of 2011, Kevin Harpham was sentenced to 32 years for planting a bomb at the site of a Martin Luther King, Jr., parade in Spokane, Washington. There isn’t any difference between Harpham and Tsarnaev. Both targeted a public event involving moving through the streets. Harpham was allegedly a member of a hate group, the National Alliance, founded by William Price, the author of ?The Turner Diaries. He was also interested in the Aryan Nation..
Then there was Wade Michael Page, who killed six persons, five of them of Sikh heritage and one a policeman. His was certainly an act of terrorism.
I am not aware that Senators McCain and Graham suggested that any of these individuals be tried as enemy combatants.
I’ll just come out with it. I have to ask whether their use of the term “enemy combatant” is racist. Is it only for deployment against people not of northern European heritage?
Moreover, the system the senators are appealing to is itself broken. Despite assurances that the military tribunal system is fair and can work as well as a civilian trial, in fact defense attorneys at Guantanamo are full of horror stories about how their clients have been dealt with. A big problem is that many were tortured and so where they have confessed, the statements are tainted. And apparently once someone is sent to Guantanamo and charged as an enemy combatant, even if he is subsequently cleared for release it is hard for the government to let him go. Uncharged, unreleased prisoners are hunger striking. Guantanamo should be closed and the whole enemy combatant thing should be rolled up. It is an embarrassment before the rest of the world.
Sens. John McCain, left, and Lindsey Graham in 2009.