How do we talk about the Boston marathon murders in a way that acknowledges the suffering and the evil, yet also places them within the broader perspective of suffering and evil that the human race has experienced, and is currently experiencing, on a far too frequent basis? I think this is an essential task that will take a lot of sensitivity and careful reflection.
Unfortunately, all too often it feels like there’s a zone of silence erected around these terrorist acts against Americans, and you push through this psychological barrier at your own peril. The silence hurts us all. There are so many legitimate questions we need to ask, publicly, without fear of censure or damaging accusations of anti-Americanism.
Let me be clear: I’m as horrified as everyone else by the killings and maimings; my heart aches for the victims and their loved ones; and I understand the symbolic significance of this kind of attack. I also agree with the consensus that this was an attack on the nation itself. I recognize that such attacks tear at the fabric of our cultural and historic values.
We all want to know why and how the Tsarnaev brothers did the terrible things they are accused of doing. We need this information to prevent future attacks and to punish the perpetrators. Yes. Yes. But… or perhaps I should say “And” – I have other questions that need answers, too, and I want to be able to pose them without hurting the victims and their families or being accused of being anti-American merely for asking them.
- I want to know how we’ve reached a place in our political discourse where a group of respected, long-serving senators can propose prosecuting a U.S. citizen, whose crimes (still alleged, I feel obliged to note) were committed on U.S. soil, as an enemy combatant?
- I want to know what, in broad terms, is the imminent threat that prevents us from reading Dzokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights. I want to know if Jared Loughner and John Holmes were read their Miranda rights and, if they were, what level of proof was needed to be satisfied in their cases that they were acting alone and hadn’t planned additional, imminent attacks that would have merited waiving Miranda rights?
- It’s being said that the Tsarnaev brothers were culturally and legally “from” both America and Chechnya. In fact, the majority of post-9/11 attacks (such as the London bombings in 2005) were similarly ‘semi-homegrown’ episodes carried out by people who were raised in, or citizens of, the pluralistic countries they attacked and not explicitly connected to larger, international terror networks. I want to know how in the future we will we decide who is and isn’t “one of us”? And how will that determination affect how we respond to acts of mass violence? How will it influence how we prosecute a crime, the penalty we seek, and the surrounding cultural and political issues we choose to emphasize?
- What kind of conditions are necessary to try a federal death penalty case in a non-death penalty state? Since this case will be prosecuted at the federal, not state, level; and since Massachusetts does not allow the death penalty, I want to know who will make the decision to seek the death penalty, as is widely assumed will be done, and how. Usually (but not always) the feds will defer to the states if the latter prohibit executions.
- The Boston marathon bombings have been repeatedly described this week as the “worst attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.” This may come as news to the victims and citizens of Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; and Newtown, CT. I want to know when – if ever – we will have an honest discussion about the kinds of mass homicide we and our elected officials are/are not willing to tolerate as the price of democracy. What kinds of mass homicide merit infringements on civil liberties? Which ones do not? Is there a scenario where we would shut down a city to find the perpetrator of a different kind of mass homicide, such as the Newtown attack on an American elementary school, arguably an equally potent symbol of our values?
I hope we can all keep asking questions with sensitivity, of course, but without fear or shame. One of the American values I cherish most deeply is the right and obligation to question.