Last Monday I was on Boylston Street, having just completed my first Boston Marathon, when the bombs detonated. As is so often the case in the digital age, I may have been just a couple of hundred yards from the epicenter, but in the immediate aftermath, people watching on television and following via social media knew far more than I about the unfolding horror. I could hear the sirens, could see some anxious faces, but I was shielded from the full force of events.
The fact that I never felt that initial sense of panic proved to be a calming factor in ensuing days, as I repeatedly contemplated my good fortune at not having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But now, as editor of EurasiaNet, I’m wrestling with the news that those suspected of carrying out the bombings, Tamerlan and Djokar Tsarnaev, are Chechens who lived for a long stretch in Kyrgyzstan.This adds a potentially volatile element to efforts to seek justice for the victims of the attacks, as well as to foster a sense of closure for those in the Boston metropolitan area, and all those affected by the mind-boggling events of the past week.
There is still a lot that is unclear about the Tsarnaevs’ background, and what appears to have driven them to carry out the marathon attacks. Until more is known about their experiences and motivations, the Chechen factor needs to be treated with extreme caution. Jumping to conclusions, or overreactions on the part of officials and media outlets, could potentially do additional harm.
One thing that already has me concerned is the knee-jerk response by some elected officials who called for Djokar Tsarnaev, the lone living suspect, to be tried as an enemy combatant, a designation that would have him tried in a military court and deprive him of basic rights, namely access to a defense attorney and a jury trial. Another worrisome development was the initial inclination of authorities to cite a legal exception in order to not read Tsarnaev, a US citizen, his Miranda rights.
Fortunately, the Obama Administration has announced that Tsarnaev will be tried in federal court. The handling of his prosecution offers a good teaching moment for the rest of the world, in particular for the countries of the former Soviet Union, in basic open society values. There is an opportunity to show the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia -- two regions where authoritarian tendencies are gaining strength and where judiciaries remain under the thumb of the executive-branch authorities, that justice can be blind and effective -- even in cases where defendants are accused of some of the most heinous acts imaginable.
At the very least, a federal court trial can perhaps counteract the negative international perceptions about the American justice system, perceptions fostered over the last decade by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, water-boarding and extraordinary rendition.
Those who have argued for military justice show an undue lack of faith in the civilian courts to do their job. Jury trials should always be viewed as one of the greatest strengths of the American democratic system.
There will be a delicate diplomatic component to Djokar Tsarnaev’s trial. In prosecuting him, it’ll be important not to put the entire Chechen nation on trial.
And any effort to circumvent legal norms, such as not Mirandizing Tsarnaev, might be perceived as arbitrary and discriminatory to outsiders, including to those following developments in Chechnya, Dagestan, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. Islamic radicals strive to take advantage of any perceived persecution by the US government against Muslims. Thus, any shortcuts taken by the American justice system in Tsarnaev’s case could give Islamic radicals ammunition for their cause, and potentially put American lives at risk down the road, either in the United States or abroad.
I’m determined to keep on running. I have a guaranteed entry for this year’s New York Marathon and a qualifying time for Boston in 2014: I plan to be at the starting line for both races. But I do worry that if the emerging diplomatic challenge now connected with last Monday’s marathon bombing case is bungled, more Americans may pay a high price.
Justin Burke is the executive editor of Eurasianet.