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Terrorism

Heated debate follows capture of Boston suspect

US media are awash with questions concerning the suspect in the Boston bombing. Observers wonder about his legal status, the media's role in his pursuit and if shutting down a major city made sense.

Was the bombing of the Boston Marathon a crime or an act of terror? The question of what kind of justice Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should face has set off a heated debate in the United States.

If treated as a criminal, Tsarnaev would face charges in a civilian court. But as a US citizen, he could only be tried before a military court if he is declared an "enemy combatant," similar to the terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. Enemy combatants also do not enjoy the right to due process.

"The accused perpetrators of these acts were not common criminals attempting to profit from a criminal enterprise, but terrorists trying to injure, maim, and kill innocent Americans," a group of Republican members of Congress, including Senator John McCain, said in a statement. "The suspect, based upon his actions, clearly is a good candidate for enemy combatant status. We do not want this suspect to remain silent."

The US government, however, seems to favor criminal courts. But authorities have reportedly not yet read Tsarnaev, who is in critical condition at a Boston hospital, his Miranda rights. Reading a suspect these rights, which inform those taken into custody of their right to a lawyer and to refuse to answer investigators' questions, among other points, is generally required for a suspect's statements to be used in court. Instead they are using an exception to the Miranda requirement that allows authorities to question suspects if they pose an imminent threat to public safety.

Undated photos showing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
(AP Photo/The Lowell Sun & Robin Young)

The suspects: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, who was killed by police while fleeing, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the decision to use the public safety exception and called the decision "un-American."

"Every criminal defendant is entitled to be read Miranda rights," ACLU head Anthony D. Romero said in a statement on the group's website. "The public safety exception should be read narrowly. It applies only when there is a continued threat to public safety and is not an open-ended exception to the Miranda rule."

The US Department of Justice is reportedly preparing to charge Tsarnaev with terrorism. But it is still unclear what sentence he could face if found guilty in a criminal court. There is no capital punishment in the state of Massachusetts, of which Boston is the capital, but if charged in a federal court he could face the death penalty.

Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN correspondent who is now director of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware, told DW he was uncomfortable with the likely application of federal terrorism charges: "These individuals are no more terrorists than the person who went into Newtown, Connecticut's elementary school and shot 26 people. I'm not sure I agree with the separation of these two categories of justice."

Did authorities overreact?

MIT police arrive for a vigil for slain officer Sean Collier in Wilmington, Massachusetts, April 20, 2013.
(Photo: Reuters/Dominick Reuter)

The intensive police presence can be felt throughout Boston

American media have also asked if authorities acted appropriately in their pursuit of the two brothers and later of Dzhokhar alone. Online magazine "Politco" asked whether locking down a major city - forcing businesses to close, shutting down public transportation and telling the public to "shelter in place" - was the "new normal" when it comes to terrorism investigations.

The website quoted Representative Dutch Ruppersberger who said allowing a single person to influence the lives of millions was not in line with American values.

"When you have lives at stake, it's up to law enforcement," Ruppersberger told Politco. "But it's an accomplishment when someone shuts down an entire community and people can't go outside and are told to stay away. We can't allow these people to shut us down."

Media coverage of the manhunt was also criticized. Authorities called the media irresponsible after CNN, Fox News, the AP news agency and the Boston Globe incorrectly reported on Thursday that a suspect had been arrested. Authorities also used the media to get their messages to the public.

It's unavoidable that media make mistakes, particularly when the situation on the ground can change from minute to minute, Begleiter told DW. But the ability of anyone to post information of any kind to a worldwide audience meant that "reassurance of accurate and timely information is a casualty of the Internet age," he said.

"The Internet has provided freedom and opportunity for a lot of new voices to express themselves," he said. "But it has regrettably also provided freedom and opportunity for a lot of new voices to express inaccurate information - sometimes accidentally inaccurate, but often deliberately inaccurate."

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