In the immediate wake of the bombing in Boston on Monday, we saw some extraordinary examples of American generosity, grace, and heroism. As awful as the tragedy was, seeing so many do the right thing and make the right choices was heartening.
Alas, as is always the case, there are some who succumb to misguided instincts. Media Matters and ThinkProgress collected some of the uglier and most unfortunate responses to Monday’s attack from conservative activists and media personalities, and regrettably, this reached Capitol Hill, too. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) wants to use Boston as an excuse to kill immigration reform, while Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) is arguing with a straight face, “We have people that are trained to act Hispanic when they are radical Islamists.”
All of this, to be sure, is disappointing, and ideally there would be some kind of accountability for those who responded to the attack with malice and stupidity. But putting aside assorted clowns and buffoons, I’m even more interested in the comments from those who are supposed to know better.
“Whenever we have an attack like this it’s difficult not to think that it’s somehow involved in Islamic extremism,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, until recently a top member of the Homeland Security committee and still a prime mover on security bills. “I don’t have evidence to back that up. That’s just based on previous attacks.”
Collins, more than some senators, was willing to tease out the hypothetical. “It’s a very important question, whether it’s a plot that originated overseas or whether it’s a lone wolf,” she said. “The question is: What do we do once we do capture the individual? How’s he treated? If he’s an American, obviously, then the constitutional protections pertain. If he is a foreign national, in my view, then he should be held by a military tribunal and he should not be read his Miranda rights as [the Christmas Day Bomber] was.”
Do we really have to go through this again? Apparently, so.
Let’s unwrap Collins’ quote a bit. First, Peter Bergen noted yesterday that there have been 380 individuals indicted for acts of political violence or for conspiring to carry out such attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. Of those 380, 23 were militants inspired by al Qaeda’s ideology – roughly half the number of home-grown, right-wing extremists. Collins’ assumptions are flawed.
Second, I’m struck by her framing – the bombs in Boston were either “a plot that originated overseas” or “a lone wolf.” Are those the only two choices? Aren’t there domestic groups policymakers should be concerned with?
And third, Collins’ ongoing support for military tribunals for foreign nationals accused of crimes in the U.S. is bizarre.
I don’t know why the Maine Republican struggles with this, but as we recently discussed, the United States already has a very capable system of federal courts, which have tried and convicted plenty of terrorists. We have also have a terrific system of federal penitentiaries, which have a record of never, ever allowing a convicted terrorist to escape.
On the other hand, we also have a system of military commissions, which tend to be an ineffective setting for trying suspected terrorists. It’s why every modern presidential administration has relied on civilian courts for these kinds of trials. It’s why the Pentagon, Justice Department, and intelligence agencies are unanimous in their support for trying accused terrorists in civilian courts. It’s why folks like David Petraeus and Colin Powell – retired generals Collins tends to take seriously – agree with the Obama administration and endorse Article III trials.
The fact that Collins waited less than 24 hours before sharing irresponsible conjecture with reporters is disappointing. The fact that she’s already talking about military commissions is worse.