Treatment of Boston suspect exposes ‘Muslim exception’ to Constitution

US Politics
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Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect in the Boston bombings  (Photo: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of the Boston bombings, some commentators are congratulating the U.S. for being free of Muslim-bashing ideology. “Where is this Islamophobic mob? Where are these marauding Muslim-haters undergoing a post-Boston freakout?” asked Brendan O’Neill, a writer for The Telegraph, in the latest iteration of someone denying the existence of Islamophobia. “They are a figment of liberal observers’ imagination.”

No, thankfully, there hasn’t been a major uptick in anti-Muslim hate crimes, thought a handful of such actions have taken place following Boston. But that doesn’t mean American Islamophobia is nowhere to be found. Consider American attitudes. I’m not talking about the most blatant, right-wing manifestations of anti-Muslim animus, but the freakout about the Muslim enemy in the press and he tolerance of routine abuse of Muslims’ civil rights.

The treatment of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the main suspect in the bombings, demonstrates this. As the American Civil Liberties Union’s Nancy Murray has said, there is a “Muslim exception” to the U.S. Constitution–and you can see this clearly in how Tsarnaev was treated by law enforcement authorities.

Tsarnaev’s Constitutional rights have been treated like luxuries to be granted by the U.S. government. That’s not how rights are supposed to work. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Tsarnaev was not read his Miranda rights. While there is a public safety exception to the reading of Miranda rights, the Obama Justice Department had unilaterally expanded this exception for terrorism cases like Tsarnaev’s. And the authorities took advantage of the Justice Department’s interpretation of the “public safety” exception: they questioned him for 16 hours before reading him his rights.

It gets worse, though. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald notes that the Los Angeles Times reported that “a senior congressional aide said Tsarnaev had asked several times for a lawyer, but that request was ignored.” As Greenwald writes, if this report is true, it is “as fundamental a violation of crucial guaranteed rights as can be imagined.” The right to counsel is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, yet Tsarnaev, an American citizen, was denied this right.

So it is very likely that Tsarnaev’s Constitutional rights were thrown to the wayside. This is unique to cases involving terrorism–specifically, terrorism thought to be influenced by Islam. We can see this clearly if we look at other instances of terrorism that don’t involve a Muslim.

Take Scott Roeder: the white, right-wing Christian who murdered the abortion doctor George Tiller in 2009. If the word has any meaning, Roeder’s act was one of terrorism. Terrorism is defined by the U.S. government as “the use of force intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal,” as Ali Abunimah pointed out after the Boston attacks. This is what Roeder’s act was all about. 

But how was Roeder treated? Better than Tsarnaev. Scott Lemieux noted in The American Prospect that “Roeder was read his Miranda rights in a timely manner.” It’s highly doubtful that Roeder would have been denied the right to see a lawyer in a timely manner. And there was no nationwide debate on whether to deny Roeder rights that are normally given to other suspects, as was the case after Boston. There were also no calls from Senators (from the right) to label him an “enemy combatant,” as there were when it came to Tsarnaev. 

The contrast between Roeder and Tsarnaev is a clear as day example of the “Muslim exception” to the Constitution that the ACLU’s Murray talked about. The acts carried out by Roeder and Tsarnaev were done with the same intent: to terrorize. Yet they’re treated disparately.  A key reason why Tsarnaev is being treated differently is because of his religion. 

The New York Police Department’s massive surveillance program targeting Muslims is another blatant example of this “Muslim exception.” Muslim citizens’ Constitutional rights–the free exercise of religion and the right to equal protection with no regards to race, religion or origin–have been systematically infringed upon by a government agency only because they are Muslim. And calls for more surveillance of Muslims have only grown after the Boston attacks.

The surveillance program and Tsarnaev’s treatment are striking examples of how there is “a separate justice system for Muslims,” as the New York Times’ Andrew Rosenthal astutely noted in March 2012.

This will have consequences for everyone, though–not just Muslims. As Greenwald writes: “If you cheer when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s right to counsel is denied, then you’re enabling the institutionalization of that violation, and thus ensuring that you have no basis or ability to object when that right is denied to others whom you find more sympathetic (including yourself).”

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