Monday, April 22, 2013

Law and Terror

Marcello Bacciarelli, Allegory of Justice

In the Age of the Terrorist, it seems that a major casualty is the rule of law.  I find it striking that so few people have faith in our system of justice -- or in any system of justice -- when it comes to terrorism cases.  And yet major terrorism cases were successfully tried in US courts without any resort to anything extraordinary or extra-legal.  For example, all of the conspirators in the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 were successfully prosecuted in regular federal court.  The perpetrator of the worst terrorist attack in the USA prior to September 11th, 2001, Timothy McVeigh, was also successfully tried and prosecuted in federal court.  I don't remember anyone demanding that he be treated differently because he was a terrorist (he may have been a white boy, but he was a terrorist).

It appears to me that a major objective of terrorists is to terrify us into trashing our own legal systems and constitutions.  Guantanamo Prison and the regime of torture and "extraordinary rendition" (kidnapping), the resort to military tribunals (and the subsequent trashing of military law in the name of expediency), the secret prisons, the vast surveillance operations, the abandoning of the Geneva Conventions (which we were once instrumental in creating after the abuses and massacres of Allied prisoners during WWII), the abuse and murder of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and at other military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan; all of these are Osama Bin Laden's greatest and most lasting achievements.  Our fear and anger led us to do the very things we hanged people for in the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials at the end of WWII.  Bin Laden laughs at us and our pretensions to virtue from his watery grave, insisting that we are no better than he is.

One of the most remarkable consequences of recent advances in genetic technology and the mapping of the human genome is in area of criminal justice.  New technologies of gene identification exposed a remarkable number of serious miscarriages of justice in which the innocent were badly wronged and the guilty got away to rob and murder again.  The most notorious here in New York is the Central Park Jogger case.  Genetic testing proved that all of the young men convicted for that crime were completely innocent, and that the guilty man not only got away but raped 3 more women and murdered a 4th before he was finally captured and imprisoned for an unrelated charge.
The Central Park Jogger case and most of the others vacated by new DNA evidence, were driven by popular hysteria over horrendous crimes whipped up by news media companies out to make money and by politically ambitious prosecutors and politicians eager to show the voters that they are tough on crime.  The ambitious love a frightened public; so easy to manipulate, so eager to be exploited.  The fear and hysteria whipped up and exploited after the September 11th attacks lead us to do terrible things that we will regret -- and revisit in civil and criminal courts -- for generations.  The day will come soon when we will look back on our actions in the years from 2001 to 2008 with as much regret as our detentions of Japanese Americans in WWII.

I waste no sympathy on the surviving Tsarnaev brother.  He murdered 3 people, including an 8 year old boy, in cold blood.  He severed the limbs of 13 people and left 50 more seriously injured; 3 are still in the hospital in critical condition.  He murdered a Boston policeman.  He struck and killed his own brother with a car in a desperate attempt to evade capture.  I can't imagine how he could be in more trouble.  He should be locked up and they should throw away the key so he can spend the rest of his life thinking about what he did someplace far away from all the rest of us.
But, he deserves his day in court.  He is an American citizen, and he is still a human being (though a very evil one), and as such is entitled to due process.

We are at our worst when we give into our fears and imagine a ticking bomb everywhere, just like on teevee every week.  We are at our strongest and our safest when we resist the instinct for revenge and demand justice instead.

In 1770, the future President of the USA, John Adams, got the unwanted task of defending the 2 British soldiers accused of murdering 5 civilians in the Boston Massacre.

The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right. This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies.
—John Adams, on the third anniversary of the massacre

John Trumbull, John Adams, 1797

There's a remarkable movie about a drama of justice versus revenge around 2 serious miscarriages of justice, Fritz Lang's 1936 movie Fury starring Spencer Tracy.


JCF said...

"[Djokar Tsarnaev] is still a human being (though a very evil one)"

No. Sorry, but I'm very emphatic about this: there are no evil human beings, only human beings who do evil things. [Agree w/ everything else you said]

Counterlight said...

Evil is as evil does.

Robert Brenchley said...

You're absolutely right, it's not only the US which has miscarriages of justice. I remember the IRA show trials in the 1970's. They couldn't get convictions, so they started packing the juries. After a bit they still couldn't get convictions, so they dropped it. Many of the people who were convicted - the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four - were eventually found to be innocent, after many years inside. The police deliberately invented the evidence.