After every major terrorist attack, there is a danger that society will, at least briefly, lose sight of its better judgment. That’s part of the intention of terrorism — to conjure up a state of confusion, rashness, and fear. Over time, the disastrous Iraq war will probably be judged by historians to have been an overreaction to the events of 9/11. So too will the use of water-boarding and some other enhanced interrogation tactics be seen as an hysterical lapse in judgment. Thankfully, the aftermath of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings — a more contained event than 9/11 in all respects — was far less freighted with excesses and misjudgments. Nonetheless, the decision last week by federal authorities to prosecute 23-year-old taxi driver Khairullozhon Matanov with crimes meriting up to 44 years in prison for allegedly lying and obstructing the investigation feels like an act of vindictiveness that many people will regret in coming years.
Matanov, a Muslim immigrant from Kyrgyzstan who was a friend of bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, allegedly lied about having watched videos, tried to cover up cellphone calls to Tamerlan and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the hours and days after the bombings, and wasn’t entirely forthcoming about his contacts with the two brothers. These alleged offenses occurred while he was apparently cooperating with police and the FBI, and his lawyer insists his alleged misstatements didn’t impede the investigation into the bombings. Former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis’s sweeping claim that Matanov was responsible for the death of MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was killed during the Tsarnaevs’ flight from justice, is misleading in many respects: Davis apparently meant that if Matanov had recognized the surveillance photos of the Tsarnaevs when they were first released and immediately gone to authorities, he might have brought about a speedier arrest, thus sparing Collier. Yet that allegation applies to anyone who might have recognized the brothers. But Davis’s comment does seem to reveal the state of mind of those who are bringing the charges against Matanov: They think he was covering up his own jihadist sympathies, which made him unwilling to help police.
That may well be true, and his lies about, for example, not having viewed any videos during a period when evidence indicates he was frantically trying to erase videos from his computer, may have been intended to hide extremist sympathies. But this is a good time to remember that watching jihadist videos isn’t a crime. The US Constitution rightly guarantees freedom of speech and thought, in the belief that extreme politics of the type Matanov may have shared (or dabbled in, or simply been curious about) are best addressed by an open exchange of ideas. Coming from repressive Kyrgyzstan, Matanov may not have understood that, in this country, watching extremist videos isn’t remotely the same thing as committing a terrorist act.
If indeed he misled investigators about his own activities, Matanov deserves some degree of punishment. But does that require four separate charges with a cumulative possible sentence of up to 44 years? Throwing the book at a scared 23-year-old immigrant because he lied about his video-watching and hid details of his contacts with bombing suspects? If the authorities believe Matanov was in any way involved in the bombings, these charges might make sense. But they aren’t saying that — not even by implication. Otherwise, this is just the kind of overly aggressive prosecution that gives the wrong impression of America’s commitment to freedom, civil liberties, and proportionate justice.