Editorial: Justice in Boston Marathon bombing can be done in civilian court

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A

The last thing we should do is let the Boston Marathon bombing undermine our fundamental principles or get in the way of important work. But some in Congress couldn't wait to use the attack for their own political ends.

The Obama administration properly decided to prosecute the surviving suspect, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, in federal court. Still in his hospital bed, Tsarnaev was charged Monday with using a weapon of mass destruction to kill, a charge that could lead to the death penalty.

Some, most vocally Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are demanding that Tsarnaev instead be treated as an enemy combatant and go before a military tribunal without some basic constitutional protections. Just before a moment of silence in Boston to mark exactly one week since the explosions that killed three people and wounded more than 180 others, Graham was holding a news conference in Washington, D.C., to wildly sound the alarm that America is at war with radical Islam and can't be bothered with legal niceties like due process.

Never mind that Tsarnaev is a U.S. citizen – taking the oath last year on the anniversary of 9/11, no less – and that he is accused of a crime, however heinous, on American soil.

The White House said that U.S. law prevents American citizens from being tried by military tribunals. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who rightly objected to declaring Tsarnaev an enemy combatant, pointed out there have been more than 400 terrorist convictions under federal civilian law.

Tsarnaev's case is much more like that of Timothy McVeigh – who was tried in federal court, convicted and executed for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people – than it is of a militant captured in Afghanistan fighting with al-Qaida or the Taliban.

Meanwhile, opponents of immigration reform, grasping for any excuse, say the attack is enough justification for putting off the debate on fixing our broken system.

In 2011, the Russian government asked the FBI for information on the older brother and second suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, before he traveled back to Russia. The FBI investigated, interviewed him and family members, and apparently did not find any terrorism activities. The Department of Homeland Security, however, delayed his citizenship petition.

Investigators are trying to find out more about his visit last year to the Russian province of Dagestan, where there is an active separatist movement. Some are questioning why Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with police Friday, was let back into the country.

It is all well and good to say we should make sure our immigration system keeps out potential terrorists.

But to derail immigration reform entirely is ridiculous. As supporters of the bipartisan plan note, one of its primary aims is to improve the checks for identifying who has come into the country and who has left, and for determining who should not be allowed to enter.

We need to learn whatever lessons we can from the Boston bombing to keep America safer. It'd just be refreshing if our elected representatives would wait until the facts come in before deciding what those lessons are.

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