As we thankfully hear of the apprehension of the remaining suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, many of us are glad that he was taken alive and hope he remains so for trial. The reason I and many others have this reaction is the sense that without a trial, we would be denied the opportunity to see justice done, to gain understanding of the crime rather than leaving it forever a mysterious attack, and to collectively experience the resolution of this awful event. We want to see him stand up before a courtroom and face his accusations rather than escaping from them, if there is anyone in the world who insists on his innocence or speaks sympathetically to his cause (should there turn out out to be one), we want those sympathizers’ faulty proclamations to be undeniably corrected as a matter of public record.
But a few people out there, including, sadly, sitting United States Senators, apparently need to be reminded that giving people their Constitutional rights and a fair trial is not being soft on them. Rather, it is a chance to demonstrate publicly and incontrovertibly their guilt, and to serve out justice—which, in this case, could even include death—in a transparent way on behalf of and in view of the entire public, while keeping the actions of the government visibly and unquestionably above reproach.
Moreover, when it is “the public” who has been attacked, every one of us has a stake in seeing things done right, and in understanding and getting to experience the outcome as clear justice done.
And when people of many stripes, from conspiracy theorists to foreign governments, from opportunistic politicians to international terrorist movements are chomping at the bit to find opportunities to preach that things are being manipulated behind the scenes, to claim cover-ups, or to argue that the United States is not a free nation as it claims to be? This is not the time to offer them fodder. This is the time when the application of justice the American way is most important.
And what if we discover that some foreign terrorist group was involved? Is that, then, reason to retract our legal system and make up a new set of rules? No, it is all the more reason to insistently maintain that legal system. Why? Because it means we can also show them that their acts will not defeat us as a nation of laws that apply equally to everyone. Because it means that we can, in an open courtroom whose proceedings will be reported everywhere, show the whole world the despicable and evil nature of the guilty parties and the moral bankruptcy of their outlook.
Things which take place in secret courts, behind closed doors, are disputable, arguable; people can believe whatever they like about them (not to mention we have, in that case, no way of keeping the system honest). Things which take place in the light of day in front of everyone cannot be disputed.
But one of the most disturbing things involved when men like Senator Lindsey Graham make foolish pronouncements about denying persons (American citizens, no less!) their Constitutional rights, is that it takes us down a weird, morally bizarre path to someplace where we are forced to argue against doing what is “fair.” Have we forgotten what “fair” means? The word is not a synonym for “nice.” When we take someone who is provably guilty of multiple murders and give him what he fairly deserves, what do you think that is? When you and I, and the Boston Marathon bomber, all get fair protection under the law, that does not mean we all get a nice pat on the back. It means you and I don’t get punished for crimes we didn’t commit (even if we are unlucky enough to be accused of them) whereas the bomber, if we know he did the crime with enough certainty to prove it, gets full punishment under the law.
To make this really clear: if we don’t think the Constitution works enough to stick to it when things matter, then deep down, we don’t really believe in the American way as defined by that Constitution. And if we say that rights don’t apply to everyone, then we have nothing to stand on when someone wants to deny them to us. Let’s put aside this dangerous nonsense about denying Constitutional rights to people, and start demonstrating that we can be a nation of freedoms and laws that remain unbowed.
We say that we do not negotiate with terrorists. If we mean it, then treating the Constitution as non-negotiable is most important of all.