The Obama administration announced on Monday that suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would “not be treated as an enemy combatant” who would be tried in a special military tribunal. Instead, White House spokesman Jay Carney declared, “we will prosecute this terrorist through our civilian system of justice.”
But this decision is a grave mistake for legal, political and practical reasons. As we sift through the challenging implications of last week’s events, we must aim to deter future acts of terror on our soil by U.S. citizens and legal residents. Treating and trying domestic terrorists as enemy combatants can provide such a deterrent.
The strongest reason to do this is to send a signal to other would-be terrorists that we, as a society, consider these acts so repellant that we treat them as acts of war.
There are many other reasons as well. First, when overwhelming evidence indicates a suspect’s guilt; when that suspect or his associates appear to have links to foreign terrorist movements, and when the crime they’re accused of involves intimidating the public. Under these circumstances, it’s appropriate to cite the suspect as an enemy combatant.
In 2006, Congress expanded the post-September 11 definition of “enemy combatant” to mean someone “who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents who is not a lawful enemy combatant (including a person who is part of the Taliban, al Qaeda or associated forces).”