Saturday, April 20, 2013

Capturing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the rituals of mourning mass-casualty events

Charlie Pierce reports on Friday events in Boston, Guns Along The River: A Late Night In Watertown Esquire Politics Blog 04/20/2013.

The one thing we should all remember about this is that it was always a police action. There was no need for Patriot Acts, or for warrantless wiretapping, or for "enhanced interrogation techniques," or for anything else out that bag of horrors the previous administration filled so fatly after the attacks of 9/11. The waterboard was left in the closet. This was cops being cops, albeit with some fairly impressive modern-day technology. (I didn't know police helicopters had thermal-imaging capabilities. I will now respect more those signs in New Hampshire that say, "Speed Monitored by Aircraft.") There has been grinding forensic work ever since the bombs went off. There was all that basic shoe-leather detective work yesterday, house after house, block after block. And that's not even to get into the horrific events of Thursday night, which nonetheless did not require a military response. Just cops being cops.

And now there should be a trial. And not just a trial, but the greatest, fairest trial in the history of trials. The defendant should get the best possible legal assistance money can buy. The "public safety exception" to Miranda should be allowed to expire. He should get the best jury we can empanel and, if we have to move the trial to Guam on account of pre-trial publicity, then godspeed. And then he should be tried and, if convicted, in the greatest, fairest trial in history, he should get shipped off forever to federal prison, never to be heard from again. We should ignore all the predictable howling from John McCain, and from his maiden aunt, Lindsey Graham. This guy is accused of being a multiple murderer. He committed his crimes against the people of Suffolk and Middlesex Counties in Massachusetts. These were not acts of war. They were crimes, more garish than most. This was a day for cops, not for grandstanding celebrity politicians who were not here this week. [my emphasis]
The "public safety exception" to Miranda is something that is a real concern to anyone who actually cares about the rights of people who are accused of crime. Marcy Wheeler discusses it in Dzhokhar Tsaraev: The Big Issue Is Not Miranda, It's Presentment Emptywheel 04/20/2013. She also links to Emily Bazelon's Why Should I Care That No One’s Reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev His Miranda Rights? Slate 04/19/2013 and Josh Gerstein's Next for Boston suspect: Five legal questions Politico 04/19/2003. Gerstein writes:

The Center for Constitutional Rights condemned the decision in a statement: "The Miranda warnings were put in place because police officers were beating and torturing "confessions" out of people who hadn't even been formally accused of a crime. We cannot afford to repeat our mistakes. If officials require suspects to incriminate themselves, they are making fair trials and due process merely option and not a requirement. To venture down that road again will make law enforcement accountable to no one."
The Center's press release is CCR Condemns Miranda Exception in Boston Marathon Suspect Case 04/20/2013, which also says:

Like Obama's expanded killing program and his perpetuation of indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo, this is yet another erosion of the Constitution to lay directly at the President's feet. Obama's Justice Department unilaterally expanded the "public safety exception" to Miranda in 2010 beyond anything the Supreme Court ever authorized. Each time the administration use this exception, it stretches wider and longer. However horrific the crime, continuing to erode constitutional rights invites continued abuse by law enforcement, and walks us down a dangerous path that becomes nearly impossible to reverse.
Pierce has obviously also been reflecting on the public rituals that have grown up around the periodic, recurring mass-casualty events that are part of American life now:

The gun battle into which John Donohue wandered exploded the comfortable narrative of these things. We had the event. Then we had the mourning. Then we had "Indomitability Day." Then we had the healing of the interfaith service at which the president gave a fine speech, and the demonstrations of solidarity at the Bruins game. That is the pattern of these things in our public lives, until the next one of these things happens, and then we do it all over again. We did it for Tucson after Columbine. We did it for Aurora after Tucson. We did it for Sandy Hook after Aurora. And, this week, we did it for Boston after Sandy Hook. It's the modern Stations of the Cross, with theme music, and logos, and Wolf Blitzer. We were done. We were healed. And then the Tsarnaev brothers came home. And one of them got away.

Suddenly, healing was very much beside the point. Suddenly, indomitability meant more than shouting brave imprecations on Facebook, or singing the Anthem loudly at a hockey game. Suddenly, indomitability meant staying inside your house, all day, while the men with the body armor and long guns walked your streets, because you might come out of your house and get yourself shot. Our autonomic emotional reflexes were all shorting out. This was an event that happened too soon after the previous event, even though, in most violent places in the world, that's the way these things happen. These are the places without the perennial media Via Dolorosa that we all walk every time another one of these things happen. Our steps were less steady. Our sense of direction was jumbled. We were on a familiar path for a while, and then some son of a bitch moved Golgotha on us, and we didn't know where to go next on our journey to redemption.
Rosa Brooks is one who thinks there's something dysfuntional about this media-driven ritual, as she explains in Keep Calm and Shut the Bleep Up Foreign Policy 04/18/2013:

At the end of the day, there just isn't much most ordinary people should do in immediate response to events such as the Boston bombings. We can take common sense security measures, but we can't eliminate all terrorism any more than we can eliminate all crime or prevent all accidental deaths. We live in an imperfect world. The best we can do is cultivate resilience and learn how to intelligently manage risk.

Second best: Let's quit whining and quit yapping. A small number of Americans have something terrible to grieve about as a result of Monday's bombing. The rest of us should show our respect by not trying to horn in on their grief -- and by shutting up until we actually have some information worth sharing.
And she refers us to an opinion piece of hers from six years ago, We're not all victims Los Angeles Times 04/20/2007, that one on the Virginia Tech Massacre. "Convincing ourselves that we've been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime," she wrote there. She added, "Our collective insistence that we all share in the Virginia Tech trauma is a form of anti-politics, one that blinds us to the distinctions between different kinds and degrees of suffering."

The Virginia Tech massacre was catastrophic for the victims and their loved ones, but, unlike war, it was not catastrophic for the nation. Yet President Bush — who refuses to attend the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq because that might "politicize" the war his administration started — ordered all federal flags at half-staff and rushed to Blacksburg to bemoan the "day of sadness for the entire nation." It's a good strategy. People busy holding candlelight vigils for the deaths in Blacksburg don't have much time left over to protest the war in Iraq.

The insistence on collective mourning even operates to depoliticize the Virginia Tech tragedy. Those who made the mistake of suggesting that the massacre might lead us to consider tighter gun regulation were quickly told to shut up because this is "a moment for grief," not politics.

But we live in a political world. Searching for policies that can reduce the violence that plagues our world, at home and abroad, is the best way to honor the dead.
I'll give some credit to President Obama so far for not trying to turn this into some war fever.

But Brooks' 2007 column gets at what bothered me so much about Obama's treating the Gaby Giffords assassination attempt as an opportunity for a pious speech about the need for "civility." Up until the Sandy Hook school shooting, he repeated the de-politicizing ritual that Brooks' describes Bush employing in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. We need less maudlin and irresponsible media spectacles around these events - and given the level of gun proliferation we have to assume they will continue - and more realistic looks at what is happening and what public policy should be in response. While the mainstream media and the Democratic Party treat these events as "a moment for grief," the NRA and their loyal Republican Party use these events to promote the sale of more guns and ammo by means of fear-mongering paranoid conspiracy theories that serves to dial up the potential for mass-casualty violence.


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