Columns / Discourse / May 2, 2013

Learning from the tragedy at the Boston Marathon

What happened in Boston taught us a lot.  It showed us that there are holes in our safety systems; that there are good people who come to help even in the face of danger; that we have people who come together and persevere.  What it also taught us is that we still live in a racialist society.

The aftermath of this Boston massacre, as a symbol, is the converging of many different problems we either have postponed talking about, or ignored.  Simply put, issues of identity and xenophobia can outweigh any fact.

After the carnage, CNN, the AP and other news organizations were in a flux to get news out.  Being first took a backseat to being factual: the wrong photo of suspects; reports of an arrest when one didn’t take place; accusing the man in a hoodie trying to get into a restricted area before the bombings took place; a phantom dark-skinned male suspect.  By valuing quickness, these organizations relied on the base assumptions of their sources.  The dark-skinned male officials were looking for turned out to be two Caucasian brothers.  Neither of them was wearing a hoodie.

Even law enforcement, under the pressure to get answers, fell to this mistake when an officer tackled an injured Saudi student who, like everyone else, was running away from danger.

The Tsarnaev brothers surprised everyone.  They are white Americans.

Quickly all those involved tried to find something to ‘other’ them.  They’re white, but they’re Muslim; they’re American, but they’re Chechen immigrants.  But if they did the crime, why ‘other’ them? Do we really need to ‘sweeten the deal’?

They had to be ‘other-ed’ because we were just coming off of Newtown.  There is a joke that has been circulating for decades: if it’s a murder or rape, the black guy did it; if it’s a shooting, a crazy person did it; and now we add if it’s an ‘act of terror’ the Pakistani or Arab Muslim did it.  White isn’t mentioned; neither is American, though the last successful bomber, McVeigh, was both.  And he was Christian to boot.

But are those factors of ‘other’ valid?
Well the younger of the two brothers, Dhzokhar Tsarnaev, had been living in the U.S. since the age of eight and gained full citizenship.  Is there a litmus test for when you’re no longer called an immigrant, and are an American?  Is it five years? 100? Are we all immigrants except the Native Americans?  Why was it that Chechens had to answer for the brothers, and not Americans? Why was it that white America didn’t have to do as much apologizing as other races have to when a ‘member’ commits a crime?

Curious still, was the emphasis that they were Muslim before any motive was confirmed.  News agencies pointed out that this could be an ‘Islamist attack’ before the suspects names were released, adding the caveat that they “still don’t know for sure” as a safety net for their accusations.  This continued when the names were released, up until Dhzokhar revealed his intentions himself.  Some will point out that the news agencies were right, their motive was a convoluted sense of religious duty, but does that excuse the fact that everyone jumped the gun?

The truth is, if they had grabbed a couple of AR-15s and shot up the street, it would still have been called terrorism.  Using the same weapon that was used in Newtown wouldn’t have changed anything because they weren’t American, and they weren’t ‘white enough’ because of their religion.  Adam Lanza was a white man born and raised in America, and thus not a terrorist.

The media then followed their usual storylines: Newtown happened because of a mentally disturbed individual, Boston happened because of religion.  And that’s the angle that will be pushed.  What is often overlooked is that this distinction assumes any rational human being can be pushed by religion to do horrible acts.

Couldn’t the Tsarnaev brothers have mental issues as well?

Don’t be surprised if Dzokhar doesn’t get a psychiatric evaluation: we’re too used to the terrorism storyline already.

Rana Tahir
Rana Tahir is a political columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering international issues. She will graduate in June 2013 with degrees in political science and creative writing, after which she will attend the University of Denver's publishing institute.

Tags:  angle AR-15s Chechen immigrant intention media muslim profiling race racism religion terrorism Tsarnaev

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