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Post-9/11 Panopticon: Tsarnaev & Rights – 2 of 2

By on May 25, 2013 | 6 comments

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While Time declared Timothy McVeigh the “face of terror,” the word “terrorist” doesn’t get attached to him very often. The Oklahoma City Bombing certainly had the death toll, drama, and underlying political purpose that ties together acts of terror. Yet the term “terrorist” has become a part of the American vernacular only recently. After our nation suffered a devastating attack on September 11th, we all became more aware of terrorism. It became something real and local rather than some far off occurrence that only happened in war-torn foreign countries.

It is hard to fathom if the Oklahoma City Bombing had taken place after September 2001, Timothy McVeigh would not have been deemed a terrorist – officially. In fact, both Timothy McVeigh and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were charged with “conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction” and “use of a weapon of mass destruction” Same charges for very similar crimes.

However, the Oklahoma City Bombing happened before the country radically changed on 9/11. There was no increased suspicion of US citizens (there was an attempt by some to cash in on the supposed rise of “radical militia groups” but nothing came of it). There was no widespread fear of another attack. The heightened attention to terrorism just wasn’t there. That made the fallout from Oklahoma City very different than what is unfolding after Boston.

In Part 1 of this little series, I introduced the idea of looking at the darker changes in our nation’s legislation, goverment powers, and psyche as a “post-9/11 panopticon.” This concept is pinned to the idea that we have allowed the government to build up precedents that have the potential to place every American citizen on constant guard, not knowing whether or not our private communications are being picked up by the government.

The other side of the coin is how a part of the post-9/11 American psyche has put each of us on guard, making others the object of constant observation & suspicion while each individual is potentially being watched as well. It’s as if we make ourselves both the guard and the prisoner in the panopticon.

In Part 1 I asserted that we agree to less freedom for everyone by condoning targeted warrantless surveillance of Muslims. Yet not only have the Boston Bombings brought increased surveillance into the spotlight, it has bled into the immigration reform debate taking place at the same time. It just so happens that not only is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a college-age Muslim, he is an immigrant from Chechnya who became a US citizen in September 2012.

As the initial shock of the Boston Bombings have waned, some politicians have already connected the attacks to immigration policy. Ann Coulter has already offered a totally measured and level-headed analysis of immigration and culture while vomiting tequila and tearing out her leg hair. If previous trends after tragedy indicate anything, not only will some people support more invasions of civil liberties but they will put more groups in the panopticon’s cells.

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This time it may very well be recent immigrants et al.

When you have a debate take place about whether a US citizen who commits a domestic crime on US soil deserves a civilian trial, that should raise eyebrows. Not only for what that means about the guaranteed rights of all citizens, but what it shows about some people’s willingness to seize those rights from others at their own expense.

In the wake of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture, Lindsey Graham and John McCain called for declaring Tsarnaev an “enemy combatant.” This means he would have been denied counsel and a civilian trial. Some have suggested revoking his citizenship based on a fraudulent naturalization application, insisting that Tsarnaev took a false oath of allegiance. However, revoking Tsarnaev’s citizenship and not allowing him to have a civilian trial would have grave implications for the rest of us.

First, it undermines that certain rights are guaranteed – rather, they are contingent upon the whims of government. It’d be rather easy for a future administration to declare any citizen an “enemy combatant” based upon the loose definition of the term. A revocation has the potential of making anyone’s citizenship unstable, given that it can allow for any criminal suspect losing it. This is a huge risk for our justice system, especially when it comes to the accused who are actually innocent (even though Tsarnaev is guilty as sin).

Second, this has the potential consequence of placing legal immigrants who have obtained citizenship in a separate class from citizens who were born within US borders. Take the concerns articulated in the previous paragraph and apply it to a case where potential revocation only applies to immigrants. As it stands, this second possibility seems much more tangible than the first given recent events.

In short, revoking Tsarnaev’s citizenship would mean that US citizens are not guaranteed a trial even for domestic crimes committed on US soil.

This isn’t the first bombing that’s happened nor will it be the last. Smaller scale bombings occur in less dramatic fashion every once in a while, and the assholes who set them off are given civilian trials. The Oklahoma City and Atlanta Olympics bombings (as well as the left-wing environmentalist nutjob Unabomber) can be likened to terrorist attacks on the same scale as the Boston Bombings. No “enemy combatants” there.

Timothy McVeigh was given a civilian trial in spite of the scale of his attack on Oklahoma City. He was a US citizen who committed a domestic crime on US soil. And he happened to kill 165 more people than Tsarnaev and his brother did. One can argue that McVeigh’s trial set a precedent for attacks on an even larger scale than the one that ravaged Boston. Why would this precedent not apply on a smaller scale? US citizens are guaranteed a trial by jury. Is Tsarnaev’s guaranteed right to a civilian trial as a citizen contingent upon his being an immigrant? He’s lived here since he was 8.

The fact that debate even happened should be mind-boggling for the majority of those who witnessed it. And should raise concerns about whether recent immigrants will become the next objects of observation in the post-9/11 panopticon.

It should be clear to anyone the correct decision was made to give Tsarnaev the opportunity to have a trial and to charge him as a US citizen. I have little sympathy for Tsarnaev, but this should be a cut and dry decision.

The opportunity to defend oneself against criminal charges is a right granted to each and every American citizen — no matter how long they have had that title.

It’s easy enough to write this off as an absurd argument, but one of the unfortunate aspects of the post-9/11 American psyche is that it is now all too easy to turn specified threats into general groups. If we allow ourselves to get too wrapped up in the idea that terrorism and immigration are inexorably tied, then we allow ourselves to be manipulated by our fears and undermine our own rights.

The underbelly of the new American psyche is the post-9/11 panopticon. We slowly allow ourselves to become prisoners of our government and in turn act as guards towards our fellow citizens. It actualized in the wake of what happened that clear Tuesday morning and is seeping into general consciousness again after Boston.

If there is any time to be aware of the government’s growing power — it’s right now when we’re most tempted to prostrate before it.

So what do we do now?

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Skyler Mann is a founding member and Managing Editor at Pocket Full of Liberty. She has her BA in philosophy and works in the insurance industry, moonlighting as a political pundit. She is a self-described small-l libertarian and an advocate for pragmatism -- one's political principles do not always align with what is feasible. She's a red fish in a blue sea, residing in Wilton, CT with her son and Mr, and has a Don't Tread On Me bumper sticker on her car. Follow her on Twitter: @sevenlayercake