, Gloucester, MA

May 2, 2013

Letter: The historical context of the Marathon bombings

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — To the editor:

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the nation was forced to do a lot of soul searching in regards to how a free and open society can balance its security needs with its long established traditions of civil liberties.

That soul searching never really stopped after 9/11 and, in the wake of the tragic and horrific events in Boston, it has reintensified.

Ironically, almost a quarter century before 9/11, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., one of the nation’s great civil libertarians, in a sobering bit of foreshadowing, warned us all that, “The episodic nature of our security crises ...” puts the country at risk of politicians, judges, and ordinary citizens “... being swept away by irrational passion.”

Serious breaches to our nation’s security have been episodic. In fact, over the course of the last 43 years, since 1970, there have been just over 3,500 deaths that can be attributed to what we now call acts of “terrorism.” The bulk of them occurred on a single day, Sept. 11, 2001.

Most of those were carried out not by foreign-born enemies of America, but by native born, overwhelmingly white, “terrorists” who used twisted notions of patriotism, Christianity, and what many of them viewed as a “right to life” to rationalize murdering their fellow countrymen.

From a historical perspective, I also find it odd that so many people think the horror the two twisted brothers inflicted on Boston this Patriot’s Day was somehow unprecedented in America.

People who believe such things forget, or perhaps never knew, that in Birmingham, Ala., at the height of the Civil Rights struggle, there were weeks when as many as 50 bombs went off in that city, targeting innocent American civilians. Those acts of “terrorism” were not carried out by foreign enemies who followed some strange religion, but by white Americans who also twisted the concepts of patriotism and Christianity to rationalize their actions and hatred of black people and of whites who believed all people are created equal.

There were not, however, calls to try such terrorists in military tribunals or as “enemy combatants,” as there are now in relation to the surviving brother of the Boston bombings. The calls for such action are examples of the “...irrational passion...” Justice Brennan warned us about in 1987.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, an action that proved to be a black mark on his otherwise impressive legacy. He also established military tribunals to hold Confederate soldiers and sympathizers accountable for their actions against the Union.

One person convicted by such a tribunal in Indianapolis, a man by the name of Milligan, had his conviction overturned by the Supreme Court. The Court ruled a person could not be tried in a military tribunal held in areas “... remote from battle and where civil courts are open and functioning.”

The Court admonished President Lincoln to remember that “...the Constitution applies at all times, and under all circumstances.”

Perhaps someone should remind GOP Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, GOP Congressman Mike Rogers, and oh so many in the right wing media of that as they try to exploit the tragedy in Boston for tawdry political gain and in pursuit of ratings.