Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lies in a hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, while the FBI waits to interrogate him. Meanwhile, a controversy swirls around him, about whether to designate the younger of the Boston bombers an enemy combatant or to read him his Miranda rights as is the due of any US citizen – and he is a naturalized citizen.
In many ways, this controversy is more about appearances than about justice. Tsarnaev is either going to prison for the rest of his life, or he will get the death penalty. Whether it goes through the civil court system or a military tribunal, he will never see freedom. As far as he himself is concerned, the debate is immaterial.
Moreover, the howls of mistreatment by the civil liberties folks because he has not yet been read his Miranda rights, and may not receive them for some time, misses the point. It is not the case that citizens automatically must, as a matter of right, be informed of the right to remain silent, to get a lawyer, etc. The true distinction is that without being Mirandized any subsequent statements will not be admissible in court, so for purposes of obtaining a conviction the interrogation is useless.
But in this case, there is ample evidence to convict Dzhokhar Tsarnaev without the assistance of any information to be gleaned from the FBI interviews. He and his brother boasted that they were the bombers to the man whose Mercedes they hijacked on Thursday night. Their faces are on plentiful videos of the crime. One of the most grievously injured, a marathoner who lost his legs in the blast, looked him in the eye moments after he dropped his backpack, and fingered him from his hospital bed. And then of course, there are the explosives, the guns, and the suicide vest worn by his brother on the Thursday night rampage. It’s going to be difficult for him to mount an “it wasn’t me” defense.
That, of course, is not the reason for denying him the chance to get lawyered up and go quiet. We need answers, and we need to get them from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The two most important questions are, “why?” and “who else?”
As we gather information about the older brother, Tamerlan, it becomes increasingly evident that he had moved toward greater militancy in his Islamic faith over the last few years. The dots have not all been connected, but the likelihood is growing that this was yet another case of a Muslim in America who became radicalized and became committed to the purifying fire of jihad.
To my Westernized mind, the notion of jihadi terrorism is dangerous, but foolish. What can they hope to accomplish? Certainly the example of 9-11 would persuade any would-be terrorist that an act of mass murder, no matter how spectacular, will fail either to make Westerners change their ways, or to bring about some revival of the caliphate. We’re just too big, too shambling, too resilient to react as the terrorist wishes. If terrorism, as the definition has it, is the use of wanton violence to obtain a political objective, then surely the predictable futility of the attack to achieve any such end makes it a particularly impotent terrorism.
This leaves the reasoning behind the attack in the realm of pure spasmodic hatred. The objective has to have been the killing of innocent women and children. They can’t have hoped to achieve anything more. This is what makes discovering the motivation behind the Tsarnaevs’ gruesome act all the more important: how were they persuaded that it made sense to do this? Who persuaded them?
This brings us to the second big question. Who else was involved? It seems unlikely to me, inexpert though I am, that this was a deadly whim acted out by two losers on the edge of American society using information picked up on bomb-making web sites. In the first place, they would have had to practice their bomb-making technique: it is doubtful that the pressure-cooker bombs that exploded at Copley Square were the first trial. This mission showed plenty of advance planning – they would not have left the most crucial element to chance.
Beyond that, their tactic of blowing two bombs in succession, the second one designed to kill people fleeing the first, is a signature ploy of Islamic radicals. It strongly suggests jihadi training.
And then there was the rest of their ordnance: the guns, the pipe bombs, the suicide vests. All these were accumulated by the Tsarnaev brothers and brought out on Thursday night – it beggars logic to suggest that all of that preparation steamed up from the frustrated mind of Tamerlan and/or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Cold reasoning suggests they had help.
Then there is the mysterious trip that the elder brother took to Russia last year. No one knows where he went, or who he met with there, but the fact that the family comes from Chechnya, home to some of the most brutal terrorists in the world, is suggestive and disturbing. He was there for six months, plenty of time to make contact with an Islamic godfather and pick up support and training for his mission.
So there is plenty that we need to learn from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It may take a long time to winkle it out of him, particularly since the Obama administration has outlawed aggressive interrogation techniques. Now, the only method available is the slow, patient building of rapport, the information deprivation, the isolation, the dependency. The time allowed by the so-called Public Safety Exception, which allows the Attorney General to delay reading Miranda rights to a particular criminal, is limited. Our need for information is not.
So this by itself argues for “enemy combatant” designation. I can’t agree with those who would say it is preferable for Dzhokhar to be able to clam up as the price of affirming our civil liberties. I don’t give a fig for demonstrating to the world that we are a nation of laws and restraint on the police. That is evident to anyone who would care to look and is capable of being persuaded. It is more important to me to demonstrate to the world that they can’t unleash this kind of terror on us without us eventually coming knocking on their door.
And for that, we need to ask Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a lot of questions.