The Boston Marathon bombing was a despicable act that should result in bringing to justice those who committed it. Those who did this wanted to do more than just kill and injure people (although that is certainly heinous enough); they also wanted to destroy the deep-rooted values of the United States. American have the right to feel secure when going to public places and enjoying recreational activities. Those who perpetrated this act wanted to destroy that feeling of safety. They sought to rob Americans of rights and liberties we cherish.
That is why it is so vital that yet another American value — our individual civil liberties — not be discarded by Americans ourselves in the wake of this tragedy. It is easy to understand the desire for vengeance, but our legal system is about justice and not vengeance. That is what separates us from many other nations who lack the rule of law. In some banana republic, a person accused of a crime can be summarily tried in a kangaroo court and quickly executed without time for an appeal.
That is not us. We are the land of the free precisely because we live under a system of legal protections of our civil liberties that cannot be discarded when the government, or even the majority of the public, feels like it. It is a stark contrast with so many other nations and it is what makes our legal system the envy of the world.
But it is at times like these when American values are at their straining point. It has happened before. In World War I, opponents of the war were jailed merely because they opposed the war. In World War II, Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps simply because of their race. For many years, lynch mobs, often with the acquiescence of local sheriffs, have taken matters into their own hands, meting out “justice” without regard for due process of law. Following 9/11, the government obtained private phone records without a warrant.
Already, some in the government and in the public want to set aside due process of law in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Several Republican U.S. senators have urged the government should consider him an enemy combatant and therefore deny him legal rights. (Fortunately, President Obama has said no.) In violation of law, police officers failed to inform him of his Miranda rights — the rights everybody in the judicial system gets, regardless of what crime they are accused of. And federal officials claim that they can question him without telling him his rights, and likely without providing him with an attorney.
These statements and actions are troubling not only because they may lead to overturning a conviction on appeal, but, more importantly, because they imply that our legal system can’t produce justice on its own. The notion that our legal system isn’t good enough for these cases is a dangerous fallacy for all of us. By chipping away at legal rights when it involves other people, we eventually come to the point when there are no rights left to protect us.
In the film “A Man for All Seasons,” Sir Thomas More tells his nephew, Will Roper, that he would “give the Devil the benefit of law.” When Roper says he would cut down every law in England to get at the devil, More replies: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”
We, too, must give Tsarnaev all the legal protections he deserves under the law. Not just for his sake, but for our sakes. It is likely he would not do the same for us. But, that is where we are different.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Email: [email protected]