Labelling’s Dangerous Effects

Kelsey Walton and James Becker

September 29, 2014

In the aftermath of the recent bombin in Boston, our country saw an unparalleled manhunt which shut down a metropolis for an entire day. The Boston police along with state and national services eventually found the bombing suspect after a chase that involved heavy gun fire and the suspects hurling explosives at officers. Everyone in the country was on the edge of their seat following the developments of Thursday night to Friday morning.  After officers pulled the suspect from a boat in a residential area, he was rushed to the hospital for gunshot injuries. Boston and America did it; we had caught the bad guy. The question on everyone’s mind then was: Do we treat him as an American citizen that broke the law or an enemy combatant?

While the event certainly brought terror into the streets of an American community and the minds of every American, it is unclear as to if the act qualifies as an act of war or terrorist attack.  As a country, however, we should also look at the deeper question of what it means to be an American citizen.  While we now know that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be tried in the civil justice system, as befitting an American citizen, the mere fact of the question means that we should examine where we stand as a people when it comes to questions of terrorism and the treating of people alleged to have broken our laws.

Terrorism, defined by Webster, is “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion”. That is a broad definition, and it can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on the situation.  Some politicians are calling for Tsarnev to be tried as an enemy combatant because he (along with his now deceased brother) exploded a bomb at the finish line of the Boston marathon.  While I can understand why they see this as an act which caused terror, labelling him as a terrorist and using that label to strip him of his legal rights would likely be entirely against the Constitution and could potentially make our freedoms more limited.

From what we have all read in the reports, Tsarnaev is an average American college kid.  He has friends, goes to the gym, and according to his friends, showed no signs of intent to harm others before or after the bombing.  The older Tsarnaev brother, who was shot and killed by police Thursday night, had been investigated in 2011 for his radical Islamic beliefs by the FBI, but he was never put into custody.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, hospitalized for his injuries, is cooperating with the police and has reportedly stated that the two worked alone and were not affiliated with any international terrorist organization.  It is becoming clearer by the day that the Tsarnaev brothers are not working with Al Qaeda and trying to terrorize the United States in the name of a radical Islamic revolution.  We are not dealing with an international terrorist with links to other hostile groups. We are dealing with American citizens that decided to cause destruction and death. It doesn’t take one long to remember this is not the first time American citizens caused domestic terror - it's not even the only time in this decade.

Jared Loughner, the shooter in the 2011 Tucson tragedy, was motivated by politics and insanity to shoot Representative Gabby Giffords severely injuring her as well as killing and injuring others.  He did this at a public gathering at a shopping center.  He certainly caused terror.  James Holmes, the Aurora Colorado shooter, opened fire with multiple assault weapons and high capacity magazines into a crowded movie theatre killing and injuring seventy men, women, and children. He also set explosive traps in his apartment to kill the officers investigating his apartment.  Again, this was a very public display of violence that killed far more people than the Boston bombings did.  James Holmes certainly caused terror.  Adam Lanza brutally and mercilessly murdered twenty children and eight teachers and administrators in a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school.  Again attacking a public place and again causing terror.  There was never a discussion of any of these individuals being labelled as terrorists and neither Mr. Loughner nor Mr. Holmes were suggested to be enemy combatants.

The main point to take away from this is that the labels we apply to people and events have meaning.  The label we almost applied to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was enemy combatant.  However, American citizens, whatever their brutal crime may be, cannot be detained as enemy combatants not only because of constitutional rights but also due to the implications of labeling citizens as enemy combatants.  Despite our strong emotions towards the victims and wanting retribution, we live in an America where every citizen, born on the soil or naturalized later in life, is innocent until proven guilty and entitled to due process.  While the evidence points to the two suspects of the bombings as the most likely candidates for guilty, we cannot prove that guilt until Tsarnaev is tried in the same court system as every other American criminal.

At the Becker Law Firm, we work with client who have been given labels and those labels are causing some sort of pain.  Whether it is an employee labelled as a slacker because of a worker's compensation injury or labelled with some racist or sexist slur, those labels hury and have to be removed.  Even in the family law area we see the application of labels.  A man might be labelled as the worse parent because he is a man or someone might have made a mistake and be labelled as a cheating spouse.  In each case, these labels are harmful and people tend to use them as shortcuts to pass judgment.  Using labels as shortcuts to pass judgment is not only harmful, but it also is not the way our system of justice (whether criminal or civil) is to work.  As lawyers, we stand at the gates to make sure that labels get removed and do not get used as shortcuts to pass judgment on a person.