Boston bombings, Chechnya, and Court Case

The Facts

For anyone who has somehow missed the news for the past few days, two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, have been identified as the men behind the Boston bombing.

Tamerlan, the older brother, was subsequently killed in a shootout with police. Dzhokar was injured in the leg and neck, but escaped for the time being. Hours later, he was found hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard in the town of Watertown, near Boston. He was taken into custody and is currently in the hospital.

Officials have said that his neck wound appears to be self-inflicted, indicating that he may have tried to kill himself.

So far, the Boston police commissioner says the brothers appear to have acted alone.

Dzhokar was not read his Miranda rights when he was captured, based on the public safety exception. However, he will be tried in a civilian court, not a military tribunal as an “enemy combatant”, as has been the case with many fighters captured abroad. He is being charged with the use of a weapon of mass destruction. (All of this will be discussed at greater length below.)

Chechnya and Dagestan: A crash course

The Tsarnaev brothers have been identified as Chechen, and have apparently lived in Dagestan before they came to the U.S. Their parents are currently residing in Dagestan.

Chechnya and Dagestan are not the most familiar names to most Americans, so I’ll try to clarify a few things about them. This article also does a good job of establishing some basic information.

Chechnya and Dagestan are both federal subjects of the Russian Federation. That’s pretty similar to states here. Federal subjects have some autonomy and their own government, but ultimately they are part of Russia and the Russian government has the final say in a lot of policy matters.

Chechnya and Dagestan have been part of Russia/the USSR for 200+ years, and factions within the states have wanted complete independence for just as long, leading to conflicts with Russia. In Chechnya, this manifested most recently with two wars in the 1990s.

The last president of Chechnya, a former separatist who had since become much more pro-Russia, was assassinated in 2004, and his election was highly questionable in the first place. There were widespread reports of falsified results and intimidation at polling centers by Russian soldiers.

In 2007, his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, was appointed president. He is known for his wealth, and allegedly controls a large personal militia referred to as the Kadyrovtsy, which used to be his father’s security force. The militia has been accused of extrajudicial killings and kidnappings.

The Tsarnaev brothers and their father came to the U.S. seeking asylum based on their ties to Chechnya. It was granted and they became legal residents of the U.S.

You may have heard some commentators express surprise that Chechens would attack the U.S., given that past attacks perpetrated by Chechen groups have been focused on Russia and were meant to support the separatist agenda. However, Chechen fighters have also occasionally left the region and instead wound up fighting on behalf of other extremist groups, specifically radical Islamist organizations in the Middle East.

Both Chechnya and Dagestan are predominantly Muslim, and some of the separatists groups operating there have also incorporated radical Islamist teachings into their agendas.


As we can pretty much expect in the wake of a brutal attack targeting civilians, people are afraid. And as we unfortunately can also expect, apparently, that fear (and its resulting anger/hatred), has often been targeted towards the Muslim community.

Several reports about suspects (which completely jumped the gun and were made before any suspects had been identified) described them, varyingly, as Saudi, or “dark-skinned.”

And now, a Muslim woman out on a walk with a friend and their children, was physically assaulted by a white male who called her a terrorist, based solely upon her ethnicity and religion.

This article does a good job of discussing the racism that went on display in the wake of the attack.

The Role of Islam

The fact that the brothers were apparently Muslim is not irrelevant, but nor are their actions a window into all Muslim faith. So far, it is not clear that their religious beliefs necessarily motivated the attacks. It is also possible that the brothers, particularly Tamerlan, who appears to have had more trouble adjusting to life in America, came here seeking a life that they could not find. A sense of alienation could have led to more interest in radical Islam, but also itself could have been a strong motivating factor in the attacks. In other words, the Tsarnaev brothers could have felt motivated enough to carry out the bombings without influence from Islam, or a series of radical teaching could have simply served as a way of channeling frustration they already felt.

So while the Tsarnaevs could have ties to radical Islamist groups, they could also be more similar to some of the mass shooters America has experienced all too frequently: dissatisfied with their lives, and ultimately acting out violently in a rejection of a society from which they felt alienated.

This raises a question (which I will probably explore later) about how to balance the idea of teaching immigrants some of the things we consider to be American values while also respecting the diversity they bring to our country. But this article gives a great account of one Muslim’s thoughts about the bombing and how it has been portrayed, and raises the incredibly important question of how we differentiate “terrorists” acting alone, separately from an established organization, for example, and a “lone wolf” terminology that we often use to describe white mass murderers. That article much more articulately states a lot of thoughts I have had in the past few days.  If you only read one linked article here, make that the one.

Miranda Rights

Moving on to the question of the Miranda rights. These are the rights you hear about on every cop tv show, when someone informs a suspect that they have the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, etc. and that anything they say can be used against them in a court of law. They are so called because of the Supreme Court case that enshrined them in our legal system, Miranda v. Arizona.

A later case, Quarles v. New York, established the public safety exception. Basically, a woman reported being raped by a man with a gun. When police encountered the man, he was wearing an empty holster. Without reading him his Miranda rights, an officer asked where the gun was. The man gestured towards the weapon. The gun was determined to be a threat to public safety, so the court ruled that it was acceptable for the officer to have asked that question prior to having read the suspect his rights.

The basis for the public safety exception in the case of Dzhokar Tsarnaev is that he may have information about the possibility of other attacks planned elsewhere in the country and ready to be carried out by other individuals.

My understanding is that, in the interest of national security, authorities had 48 hours before they had to Mirandize him. However, his injuries seem to have rendered him at least temporarily, and possibly permanently, incapable of speech. It is unclear whether he has been able to communicate with authorities in any other way, and so it has also not been clear to me whether that 48 hour window began from the time of capture or will begin if/when he is able to communicate with authorities.

There are a couple of issues raised here. One is simply that as we find more exceptions to constitutionally guaranteed rights, we will also see those rights being undermined not just in extreme cases like this, but more and more on a daily basis. When do we draw the line about public safety exceptions? Does a small-scale drug dealer caught on the streets have information about possible upcoming gang violence? Well, he could. There are potentially infinite examples of how a relatively commonplace kind of crime could have some sort of tie to another, larger-scale crime, and that creates more and more incentives to sidestep the rights that have been established for us.

And then there is the time frame concerned. In the original Quarles case that gave us the public safety exception, the question, “where is the gun?” was asked pretty much immediately, at the scene, while the officer was in the process of making the arrest. Extending the time frame to cover multiple days creates more opportunities for abuse, again, not just in the case of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, but potentially many future cases as well.

The takeaway here is that when the government expands its own powers, it rarely ever contracts them again. And that should be of concern for all Americans.

Civilian Court

So that is why it is a good thing that Tsarnaev will be tried in a civilian court, not a military commission, despite the railings of some Republicans. Since the Dzhokar, unlike his older brother, is an American citizen, it would have been illegal to try him in a military commission.

The point of our constitutional rights are to ensure that the government can’t take them away, under almost any circumstances. Otherwise, a state of emergency or a question of national security can come to cover almost any situation and allow for prosecution not just of true crimes, but also of dissent. This is something that can be seen all over the world, and is a threat against which citizens must constantly be vigilant, even as we also strive to preserve our national security.

Hundreds of terrorists have been successfully prosecuted in the U.S. civilian justice system, including the Detroit underwear bomber. There is no reason that same feat cannot be accomplished in the case of Dzhokar Tsaraev. To claim otherwise, frankly, is sort of insulting to our justice system. Why have one if we don’t trust it to prosecute our dangerous criminals?

WMD Charge

Finally, there is the charge of using a weapon of mass destruction. WMD have in the past generally referred to biological, chemical, or radiological weapons. That is why their supposed existence in Iraq, for example, was conceived of as an acceptable rationale for invasion. However, as the scope of the Global War on Terror has expanded, so has that definition. Now, WMD can refer to almost any kind of explosive device.

This kind of overly broad definition sort of renders the term WMD useless. If WMD just refers to explosives of any kind, why should they have their own category? As the author of the linked article above points out, it might just serve as a political expedient for getting harsher punishments put on the table. In this case, that is the charge that is keeping the death penalty on the table for Dzhokar Tsarnaev. But there are some inherent dangers in codifying legal definitions into our justice system whose soul purpose is as a political expedient. It sets a potentially troubling precedent.

If you made it through this entire lengthy post, congratulations! Here’s your prize.

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