NEW YORK – Another Memorial Day is here: Cookouts, baseball games and parades. And that's okay; but let's not forget the real purpose of the day: To remember the men and women of our armed services who have died at war.
A soldier sits at a grave in Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2009
At Arlington National Cemetery, soldiers, sailors and marines from the U.S. Army Old Guard place flags at the grave stones there. It will take thirteen hundred soldiers three hours to place a flag at each of the more than 300,000 gravestones.
Thousands of visitors will pay their respects, not only at Arlington, but at the Long Island National Cemetery, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, in Honolulu and, of course, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. All across the country, we will honor our war dead from the wars of the past twelve years in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as wars we have fought since the founding of these United States.
There are even freshly placed flags flying over the graves of civil war veterans in Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier and elsewhere. After all, this holiday was first enacted as Decoration Day, to commemorate Union soldiers from the Civil War, and later expanded to honor casualties of any military action.
But somehow Memorial Day has evolved to mark the unofficial start of summer. So, let us never forget, as we fire up the barbeque and head to the beach that, while we cookout and visit with our families, other families are separated by war. On Memorial Day 2009, members of our military deployed across the globe continue their service, in the knowledge that the next Memorial Day could also honor them.
That is why, when I put my children to bed at night, I tell them about the men and women who have died to protect their freedom. I tell them not just on Memorial Day, but often. I want them to honor those who have sacrificed their lives so that we can live ours in freedom.
A version of this post first appeared on CNN.com for Anderson Cooper 360, on Memorial Day 2009
When the worst crime of 1770 occurred on a cold night in Boston — the “bloody butchery” of five patriots by nine British redcoats, no one would defend the soldiers accused of the crime.
Yet, John Adams took the case. “[N]o man in a free country should be denied right to counsel and a fair trial.” The young lawyer agreed to represent the men, in large part, on principle, to demonstrate the impartiality of our colonial courts – and the better nature of our colonial selves. Boston, after all, would become the birthplace of our democracy.
A famous depiction of the Boston Massacrewas engraved by Paul Revere.
The Boston Massacre trial, as came to be known, is our nation's famous example of a successful defense of person's charged with heinous crimes amidst popular suspicions and prejudices. Going into the case, the men were presumed guilty. But, as Adams instructed the jury, “facts are stubborn things,” and at the end of it, their captain was found not guilty of giving the order to fire. Of the remaining soldiers, six were acquitted and two were found guilty only of manslaughter, punished only with a branding of the letter “M” on their thumbs. With his defense, Adams laid the groundwork for a criminal justice system rooted in the right to counsel, fair trial and the right against self-incrimination.
Despite this affiliation with the crown, John Adams of course went on to lead the colonies to separation, revolution and independence. Representing the soldiers he was standing for not just the men accused but the undergirding principles of our democracy, including the notion that the even the most reviled among us deserves full and vigorous representation.
In 2013, there can be little doubt Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the most reviled among us. He is has now reportedly admitted his role in planting and detonating an improvised explosive device that killed spectators at the historic Boston Marathon on Patriots’ Day. For that, authorities have charged him with using a weapon of mass destruction. Tsarnaev is also charged with malicious destruction of property by means of an explosion that resulted in death. Both charges carry a potential death sentence.
Even thought Tsarnaev has been a U.S. citizen for a year, and has lived in this country for ten, some conservative lawmakers have been calling for him to be treated as an “enemy combatant,” under the 2001 resolution providing for the indefinite detention of non-citizens in the war against terrorism, specifically, “alleged members and supporters of al-Qaida or the Taliban.” The Obama administration has thus far rejected this notion (not surprising, given that the administration had previously announced its abandonment of the use of the term “enemy combatant,” in March 2009).
Tsarnaev, who is nineteen-years-old, apparently made his initial admissions without a lawyer present, under the public safety exception to the Miranda rule, which requires police to advise suspects of their right to remain silent and have a lawyer present for questioning. Those admissions are leading to Tweets like this:
“Why does US taxpayer monies have to be wasted on defending Boston bomber. He did it, nuff said.”
“…I hope those Boston terrorists burn in hell! ”
“I will tell you right now. Boston wants him dead. So that’s what we already plan to do. The trial is just a waste of time.”
Those are not the principles that were celebrated on Patriots’ Day when the bombs went off, principles John Adams and our founders fought and, in many cases, gave their lives for, values for which thousands of American patriots have died defending for over two centuries. The right to counsel. The right to a fair trial. The presumption of innocence.
When our values come under attack, from any quarters, our response should be to defend them fiercely, not to sacrifice them in the face of fear. When we give in to our fears, and too easily let go of our most sacred democratic principles, the terrorists win.
Boston Marathon runner Ken Thomson, of Alpharetta, Ga, is interviewed by television reporters as he arrives at Hartsfield-Jackson airport after running in the Boston Marathon, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Atlanta. Photo: AP/ David Goldman
The professional life of a journalist is seeded with catastrophic events of the sort the country faced yesterday at the finish line at Copely Square. There are lessons we learn that can be helpful, as all we move forward with the telling of the story and the weeding through the facts, in Boston.
April 19 1995, a massive truck bomb exploded at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children. It would become the first major news story of my career, followed by months spent in Denver covering the trials of the men responsible, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
I marveled as the nation came together around that tragedy. Then I covered the arrests, trials, and conspiracy theories, which persist to this day, interviewing the victims, their families and returning periodically to celebrate the rebirth of Oklahoma City.
But what did we learn from those tragic events and their aftermath?
In any fast-moving story, there is bound to be misinformation in the first 24-48 hour cycle – about the numbers injured or killed, about who did this and why.
In Oklahoma City, the context for speculation on the latter question was the first World Trade Center bombing that had occurred two years earlier. That led police, press and members of the public to suspect international terrorists, likely the same group that had carried out the bombing in New York. A man inconveniently named Ibrahim Ahmad, a Jordanian-American traveling from his home in Oklahoma City to visit family in Jordan on April 19, 1995, was arrested in what was described as an “initial dragnet.” But further investigation cleared Ahmad of any wrongdoing.
As luck would have it, a state trooper spotted Timothy McVeigh, driving on Interstate 35. He was not pulled over in connection with the bombing, but instead because he was driving without a license plate. He was then detained for illegal possession of a firearm. Soon forensics tied him to the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil.
McVeigh, and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, it turned out, were domestic terrorists — militia movement sympathizers looking for revenge against the federal government for its handling of the Waco Siege, which ended in the deaths of 76 people exactly two years prior. They hoped to inspire a revolt against what they considered to be a tyrannical federal government. Nichols was convicted in both federal and state court and is serving life with no possibility of parole in federal prison. I covered McVeigh’s execution in June 2001.
That September, however, came the story that would change everything. That’s when the planes hit. The first, then the second. So many people in Boston yesterday made the comparison to 9/11. The uncertainty, at first, about what was happening; and then, after the second blast, the powerful knowledge that something was terribly wrong. It was the same on 9/11. One plane, an accident perhaps. Two planes, certainly not.
I was born in the shadow of the World Trade Center. When I was a toddler, my father often took me to watch the construction of the two massive structures. I had never known a New York City without the Twin Towers, until September 11, 2001.
So, that morning, dispatched by ABC News to what would come be known as Ground Zero, as I approached that gutted and massive hole in the ground, I completely lost my bearings. I had no frame of reference without those towers.
I was at Ground Zero every day for two weeks. I reported on marines digging for survivors with their bare hands; volunteer fire fighters from all across the country joining the rescue mission; daycare workers who had saved scores of children before the towers fell. My crew was the first to gain access to what rescue workers called “The Pile” — bringing the world the very first images from within the smoking heap of rubble that was once Tower One. We also covered the last two survivors pulled from the rubble days after rescue workers had given up hope of finding anyone alive. That was September 14th. They had been trapped underground for days.
A journalist can never become a part of the story. But journalists do have the power to alter the course of events, if they lose their objectivity.
Which gets me to the story that reminds me most of what is happening in Boston today – the Centennial Olympic Park Bombing in during the summer Olympics in 1996. I’ve covered that story three times in my career. First, when the summer Olympiad was disrupted by the explosion of a nail and pipe bomb at a concert there, killing a woman who had brought her daughter to hear the music and injuring more than 100 others, including a cameraman who suffered a fatal heart attack after the blast.
Within a few days, police charged Richard Jewell, a security guard at the concert. Jewell had initially discovered the explosive device on park grounds and alerted police. He had also helped evacuate the area, arguably saving lives and was initially hailed as a hero. I recall how quickly the media tide turned against him, however, as he became the prime suspect in the case. Jewell was never charged, but endured weeks of media coverage aggressively focused on him as the presumed bomber, labeling him with the term “person of interest.” We portrayed him as a failed police officer that may have planted the bomb to then “find” it and be hailed as a hero.
The actual evidence against Jewel was dubious at best, however. In October 1996, he was cleared of all responsibility in the bombing. But Jewell remained a suspect in the minds of many Americans. Attorney General Janet Reno later expressed regret that his name had ever been leaked to the media. “I’m very sorry it happened. I think we owe him an apology. I regret the leak.” That was in 1997.
In 1998, authorities tied a series of similar bombings across the country, to Eric Robert Rudolph. Rudolph was a 31-year-old carpenter with an anti-abortion and anti-gay agenda. I was one of many journalists who covered Rudolph, his agenda, and the extensive manhunt that finally brought him to justice. As part of an agreement to avoid a death sentence, Rudolph pleaded guilty to three bombings, including the Olympic Park bombing. He is serving four consecutive life terms in a maximum-security federal prison.
The third time I covered this story was in 2007. That was when Richard Jewell died of natural causes. He was suffering from severe heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes. I felt it was important to take a look back at the case and reiterate, one last time, that he’d been innocent, all those years before. I wonder how many Americans still associate Jewell with the Olympic Park Bombing, how many Americans still think he’s guilty. Richard Jewell was 44-years-old when he died.
We got the Olympic Park Bombing case totally wrong. We accused the wrong person. And it literally took years to build a case against the right person, and finally find him guilty of the crime. This time around, in Boston we should take a step back – journalists, law enforcement, and members of the public — rather than make the same sort of mistake again. Given the depth and breadth of the evidence – hundreds of backpacks strewn about, a 15-block crime scene, tens of thousands of people in the vicinity of the blasts — this could, and should be the beginning of a very long process.