Police work at the scene where Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in a Sept. 17 explosion in New York City and a second bombing later that evening in New Jersey, was arrested following a shootout with police, Sept. 19, 2016, in Linden, N.J.
Photo by Justin Lane/EPA

Rahami arrest renews misguided ‘enemy combatant’ debate

Following the recent developments in New York and New Jersey, it was only a matter of time before we heard this.
[Donald Trump] celebrated catching bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami, who he called an “evil thug,” and seemed to push for him to be tried as an enemy combatant. “We must also use whatever lawful methods are available to obtain information from the apprehended suspect to get information before it’s no longer timely,” Trump said. “And Congress should pass measures to ensure that foreign enemy combatants are treated as such. These are enemies. These are combatants.”

This statement puts Trump in rare agreement with Sen. Lindsay Graham, who also pushed for the suspect to be tried as an enemy combatant. “Holding Rahami as an enemy combatant also allows us to question him about what attacks may follow in the future,” Graham said in a statement.
As Rachel has explained on the show, the purpose of the designation is to deny suspects Miranda warnings and prevent the appointment of defense counsel – despite, you know, the U.S. Constitution.

If this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for that: every time there’s an incident like this, Lindsey Graham and his ideological allies almost reflexively roll out the “enemy combatant” argument. Unfortunately, the idea isn’t improving with age.

The Boston Marathon bombing case is instructive given the circumstances. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – like Rahami – was a naturalized American citizen, captured on American soil, accused of committing a crime in America. Graham, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and other Republicans immediately urged the Obama administration to label Tsarnaev an “enemy combatant.”

The administration ignored the pleas and instead stuck to the rule of law and the American justice system – and we now know that was the right decision.

As the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky explained a while back, “It took a week less than two years, an impressively brisk time window, for federal prosecutors in Massachusetts to deliver justice to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the jury needed just 11 hours to deliberate. We didn’t waterboard him or send him to Gitmo, his jailers didn’t make him strip naked and get down on all fours while they led him around on a leash; and still, miraculously, despite these failures of our resolve, the people of the United States got a conviction.”

The reference to “failures” was, of course, sarcasm.

Circling back to our coverage from the time, it’s worth remembering that this keeps happening. The Obama administration, to the great consternation of the Lindsey Grahams of the world, continues to try terrorist suspects in civilian Article III courts, and continues to secure convictions while sticking to the American system of justice.

The partisan argument, such as it is, continues to be baseless. According to a wide variety of Republicans, these trials should never happen. The United States may have an established and effective criminal justice system that has tried and convicted hundreds of terrorists, and we may also have an established and effective system of federal penitentiaries from which no terrorist has ever escaped, but right around January 2009, GOP lawmakers decided criminal trials for terrorist suspects were inherently outrageous. (Plenty of nervous Democrats, fearful of being labeled “weak on terror,” went along.)

Republicans have instead demanded military commissions, which tend to be an ineffective setting for trying suspected terrorists. Every modern presidential administration has relied on civilian courts for terrorist trials – a decision backed by the Pentagon, Justice Department, and intelligence agencies – but GOP officials have nevertheless insisted that Article III trials are the wrong way to go.

At a certain point, however, the evidence proving the folly of this argument should start to change some minds.

Counter-Terrorism and Lindsey Graham

Rahami arrest renews misguided 'enemy combatant' debate