Now that the hunt seems to be over for the people who carried out the Boston marathon bombings, there is some debate over what rights the captured person has, particularly his Miranda rights. There are those who make the facile argument that the bombing was an ‘act of terror’ and that those accused of such acts are not deserving of due process rights. Apparently the suspect is not going to be read his Miranda rights until after extensive questioning.
Some are asking what exactly the difference is between an ‘ordinary’ crime and an act of terrorism. People often avoid drawing sharp lines because one then finds that the results do not always match one’s prejudices and agenda. For example, a distinction that could be made is that terrorist acts are also crimes but a subset of them that are aimed at instilling fear in, or punishing, a generalized population as opposed to targeting specific individuals. But by that definition what are referred to as ‘hate crimes’ would also be acts of terrorism, which may not be what people want.
This is why people do not carefully define politically charged terms like ‘terrorism’ but tend to use them in an ad hoc way as rhetorical weapons to suit their immediate purposes. The word ‘terrorism’ is now used to instill fear whenever people want to stampede us into abandoning commitment to the rule of law and due process. Glenn Greenwald has a good essay on why it is precisely at times like this, when someone is widely reviled and hated for allegedly committing some atrocious act, that it is especially important to make sure due process rights are protected although the Obama administration, with the complicity of the Democratic party, has already gutted Miranda rights protections in the ‘war on terror’.
It is a little ironic in a way. I am a fan of old western films and a recurring theme in them was the sheriff who holds at bay angry townspeople who want to mete out summary justice to a prisoner in his jail, because he wants that person to have a fair trial. In those films we rooted for the sheriff but nowadays it seems like we are rooting for the mob.