Truman National Security Project

Terrorists and Americans

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By Steve Heitkamp | 4.23.13
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The only thing remarkable about the backstory of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is how common it is. Its culmination, a pointless and horrific act of violence, is fortunately one that rarely happens. This is partially because of the hard work of local and federal law enforcement and partially because most people, even if they are unsuccessful, frustrated, alienated, extreme or radicalized, do not commit violence.

We must not forget this basic fact: Assuming police are correct and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is responsible for these crimes, he is not an enemy combatant from distant lands; he is an American who committed acts of terror against his fellow citizens. If he is somehow connected to Al Qaeda, then he is a traitor, but he is still an American and should be treated like one.

When I was a member of the New York Police Department Intelligence Division, there were numerous instances where the individuals we investigated were, on the surface, not dissimilar from Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. For whatever reason, these individuals would come across our radar. Maybe a neighbor would call about some odd behavior, or perhaps someone was Facebook friends with the subject of another investigation. Or perhaps our interest would stem from a combination of factors, such as foreign travel and a criminal history.

In no instance could we overlook these leads, but in many cases we would ultimately conclude that although there were concerning indicators, there was not enough information to push forward with a full investigation.

That is because, living in a free and open society — and being constrained by limited resources and necessary legal requirements — we understood that although people would often say or do things that we found alarming, there was a limit to what we, as law enforcement and intelligence officials, should and could do. At some point, we needed to decide to stop devoting resources to trying to identify whether or not an angry person was potentially violent, or if “World view: Islam” meant anything more than that a person was Muslim.

Sometimes this meant that we would close the case and move on. Closing cases was always difficult, fraught with doubt about whether or not we had made the right assessment. But so was keeping cases open when we had assessed that there probably was no real threat. Being wrong is a risk we take, and one anyone who has worked in this field has lost sleep over.

Most of the time, however, this is where the story ends.

Most people with profiles like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar go on to live full, peaceful and productive lives. The potential indicators of concern turn out to be indicators of an American working through a complex identity in a country that thrives by accepting and integrating people from everywhere in the world.

This is a challenge not just for recent immigrants but for all Americans. Living in New York City, almost every day involves a new cultural experience, and not all of those experiences are positive. The vast majority of Americans, however, decide that the benefits of a living in a free, open and multicultural society greatly outweigh the frustrations. Moreover, we come to understand that we overcome the frustrations through engagement and empathy, not through violence.

Those who decide that violence, be it to coerce and intimidate or to express hate, is the solution to their problems betray the ideals of this country. They are not enemy combatants; they are the most reviled Americans.

That’s why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be treated as an American citizen. Not just for legal reasons (though our legal system has proved on numerous occasions that it is fully equipped to deal with this case), but because of the message it sends.

We must show the world that even when our own citizens betray us and murder innocent civilians, we do not deny them their rights. We do not let their acts of cowardice influence our values. We try them, and if found guilty, we sentence them and then we move on. We continue to accept immigrants from throughout the world, from Chechnya and beyond, and provide them with the opportunity to thrive. We continue to conduct investigations constrained by legal requirements and we continue to run marathons in open and public spaces.

By treating Dzhokhar as the American he is, we deny him what he ultimately wanted: to change our behavior through terrorist violence. In doing so, we reaffirm our core national values.

Steve Heitkamp is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on New York Daily News.