Don’t Let Them Use Fear to Lock Down Our Rights

Nicole Colson Apr 23, 2013

The hunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings is over, but the consequences will continue to be felt, affecting everything from the character of mainstream politics; to the scaremongering about "radical Islam," both abroad and on U.S. soil; to the question of civil liberties and whether they should be violated if authorities decide there is a "terrorist threat."

Four days after Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout and brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was wounded and arrested hours later, we still don't know the motives of the two suspects–whether, as the media implies, based on speculation, that their decision to inflict such terrible carnage was connected in their minds to their identity as Chechens or Muslims or both.

What we do know is that there will be a rush to score political points–and that rush will invariably come at the expense of our rights.

The Boston Marathon bombings were a sadistic attack, designed to maim, and targeted against people who bear no responsibility for the ills of society. But now those bombings are being used as a justification for furthering an agenda of violence and political repression.

It may not be popular to do so, but those who oppose war, racism and injustice need to speak up and question the rush to judge and scapegoat–and challenge those who will try to exploit the horror of the Boston bombings as an excuse to take away our rights.

All of the racist assumptions about "terrorism" that simmer below the surface in the U.S. media and political establishment came bubbling up in the past week.

In general, the media were initially hesitant to label the Boston bombings to be the work of Middle Eastern Islamic extremists. But there were exceptions even in the first days after the tragedy–like CNN anchor John King reporting that the suspected bomber was a "darker-skinned" male with a "possible foreign accent."

No publication sunk as low as the New York Post, which first falsely reported that a "Saudi national" was in custody for the bombings–and then ran a front cover with an image of two men and the headline "BAG MEN: Feds seek these two." Those men were not the Tsarnaevs, and had nothing to do with the bombings. But because they had brown skin, the Post felt justified in painting a target on their backs.

The Post later claimed to stand by its story since it "did not identify [the two pictured men] as suspects."'s Tom Scocca called that excuse "legalistic horseshit."

Behind it all was the prejudices of the media–and the political establishment beyond them–about what gets called "terrorism": acts of violence committed by people of Middle East origins who identify as Muslims.

It wasn't long before the impact was felt. In New York City, on the night of the bombing, Abdullah Faruqu, a Bangladeshi man, was attacked by several men calling him a "fucking Arab." Heba Abolaban, a young Palestinian doctor and mother, was assaulted in Malden, Mass., two days after the bombing, while walking with her children. Her assailant punched her in the shoulder and shouted, "Fuck you, Muslims!" and "You are involved in the Boston explosions."

Once the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as suspects–and their background, including their emigration to the U.S. from Chechnya and their Muslim faith, came to light–the racist scapegoating really got underway.

Republicans led the baying for blood, of course. New York Rep. Steve King called for a new McCarthyism, telling the National Review that police must "realize that the threat is coming from the Muslim community and increase surveillance there." New York state Sen. Greg Ball advocated torturing Dzhokar Tsarnaev, writing, "Who wouldn't use torture on this punk to save more lives?"

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and John McCain of Arizona called for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be designated an "enemy combatant"–so that, as Graham told the New York Times, authorities could "question him for a lengthy period without a lawyer and outside the criminal justice system."

But the Republicans needn't have worried. Tsarnaev is already being questioned "without a lawyer," and it's unknown when he'll get one–because the Obama administration invoked a legal provision allowing for the government, in cases of a vaguely defined "ongoing threat to public safety," to not inform suspects of their rights to remain silent and consult an attorney under the Supreme Court's Miranda decision.

No one actually claims there is an "ongoing threat to public safety." Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick told NBC News, "There isn't any basis for concern about another imminent threat." But few in the political establishment raised any objection to the Obama administration's decision.

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York may have sounded moderated compared to Lindsey Graham, but he came down just as squarely on the side of violating civil liberties.

"I think that the good news is we don't need 'enemy combatant' to get all the information we need out of him," Schumer told the Times. "Number one: the court, the one court that has ruled, has allowed a lot of flexibility in the public safety exception before you Mirandize somebody. But second, at any time, what's called a HIG, a High-Value Interrogation Group, composed of the FBI, CIA and anyone else, can question him without a lawyer in a secured situation and find out whatever they need."

Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald pointed out the hypocrisy of Schumer distancing himself from Graham's rhetoric while supporting the substance of his proposals:

It is bizarre indeed to watch Democrats act as though Graham's theories are exotic or repellent. This is, after all, the same faction that insists that Obama has the power to target even U.S. citizens for execution without charges, lawyers, or any due process, on the ground that anyone the president accuses of terrorism forfeits those rights…

Once you adopt this "entire-globe-is-a-battlefield" war paradigm–as supporters of Obama's assassination powers must do and have explicitly done–then it's impossible to scorn Graham's views about what should be done with Tsarnaev. Indeed, one is necessarily endorsing the theory in which Graham's beliefs are grounded.

If there was any doubt about how closely aligned the Obama administration is with its predecessors in the Bush administration on the issue of civil liberties, the seal of approval came from George W. Bush's former attorney general, the hated John Ashcroft.

Speaking to NPR's Rachel Martin, Ashcroft–architect of many of the worst attacks on civil liberties following September 11–defended the Obama administration's refusal to read Dzhokar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights.

Ashcroft claimed that not administering Miranda rights to suspects has helped the government stop terrorist attacks, reciting a list that included Faisal Shazad, accused of attempting a car bombing in Times Square, and Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber," among others.

But many of the terrorism plots that the U.S. claims to have foiled in the last decade are really little more than entrapment: Cases in which the FBI selects hostile, vulnerable people, frequently on the margins of society, stokes their anger against the U.S., prompts them to act against a target and provides them with the money and means to do so–before finally swooping in to stop the attack and declare a "victory" in the "war on terror."

As Erik Love noted at Al Jazeera, these fake "foiled" plots play into the narrative that "terrorism" is committed by Muslims alone:

Since 9/11, Muslim American terrorism has killed 33 people, while politically motivated attacks from white supremacists and other right-wing extremists killed more than 200 people, according to a study from the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy. Since 2010, no one has been killed or injured by Muslim American terrorism. Why do so many Americans have the knee-jerk reaction that "it's probably the Muslims?"

Is it any wonder that in 2010, a poll by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies found that 43 percent of Americans admitted to feeling at least "a little prejudice" against Muslims–more than twice the number who said the same about Christians, Jews or Buddhists. Such bias is a direct result of the demonization of Muslims as a result of the war on terror.

In the days to come, more politicians will jump on the bandwagon, calling for more restrictions on our civil liberties to make us "safer." But squashing Miranda rights and other rights won't "save more lives." Repression only creates the conditions for bitterness and despair to thrive–at home and around the globe–and sometimes be expressed in awful spasms of anger.

Anyone who thinks the government will stop shredding civil liberties with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev needs to consider history, as Glenn Greenwald wrote:

[T]hat's always how rights are abridged: by targeting the most marginalized group or most hated individual in the first instance, based on the expectation that nobody will object because of how marginalized or hated they are. Once those rights violations are acquiesced to in the first instance, then they become institutionalized forever, and there is no basis for objecting once they are applied to others, as they inevitably will be.

Or as Slate's Emily Bazelon wrote, "When the law gets bent out of shape for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it's easier to bend out of shape for the rest of us."

An earlier version of this article appeared on

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