No More Enemy Combatants in the US: Obama Renews our Commitment to the Rule of Law

One week after the terrible bombings in Boston, we are in a very different place than we were the week after the attacks on September 11. In that first week after 9/11, the Justice Department had already started its round-up of what would be a thousand men by the end of November, who were imprisoned solely on the suspicion that they were Arab or Muslim. Many were held without charge or access to a lawyer for days or weeks or even months, many were physically abused in prison. One Pakistani immigrant died from a heart attack while in custody. At the same time, without telling Congress, the White House was secretly planning a regime of military imprisonment without trial for people found in the United States, whom the President suspected of terrorism. They later implemented the regime, imprisoning Jose Padilla and Ali al-Marri for years, denying them access to a lawyer and arguing that courts had no business reviewing the President's decisions.

None of those measures are in the works this time. Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, we now have a President who has been steadfast in his respect for the civilian court system for people arrested in the United States. A few Senators with the help of the media have created a meaningless "debate" about whether the Boston suspect should be held by the military as an "enemy combatant" without charge or counsel. But as this is being written, the government is already charging him in federal court. This response should not be surprising because this administration declared years ago and in the face of repeated criticism by those same Senators, that suspected terrorists seized in the United States would face criminal charges in federal court.

Why the difference? Of course, the scale of the attack in Boston was much smaller, although enough to kill and maim lots of people and to shut down the city. But it also seems that the current administration led by President Obama has learned important lessons about not over-reacting, about defeating terrorism through resilience and respect for civil liberties like the right to a trial. The statement by the Boston FBI, speaking of the "terror and fear [instilled] among the citizens of the city of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and elsewhere," was reminiscent of the message of twelve years ago. But an hour later, the statement by President Obama after the second suspect was caught was a testament to resilience, to unity through diversity and strength through adherence to the rule of law.

Whatever the [terrorists] thought they could ultimately achieve, they've already failed. They failed because the people of Boston refused to be intimidated. They failed because, as Americans, we refused to be terrorized. They failed because we will not waver from the character and the compassion and the values that define us as a country. Nor will we break the bonds that hold us together as Americans.

That American spirit includes staying true to the unity and diversity that makes us strong -- like no other nation in the world. .... [W]hen a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it's important that we do this right. . . . That's why we have courts. And that's why we take care not to rush to judgment -- not about the motivations of these individuals; certainly not about entire groups of people.

After all, one of the things that makes America the greatest nation on Earth, but also, one of the things that makes Boston such a great city, is that we welcome people from all around the world -- people of every faith, every ethnicity, from every corner of the globe. So as we continue to learn more about why and how this tragedy happened, let's make sure that we sustain that spirit

With the decision today to bring the judge and the public defender to the suspect's hospital bed to read him his rights and arraign him for trial, the President has demonstrated these were not merely words.