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The Boston Bombings: 18 Perspectives

boston-week-later [1]

Over the past week, as much as there has been coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the following Watertown manhunt for the alleged suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers, there has been an equal amount of discussion and focus on the role of the media and the state of journalism in covering incidents of violence. In particular, there has been focus on how race, ethnicity and religion play into the creation of narratives and how, in turn, certain labels and character sketches are created to pull our collective imaginations and fears along. The Islamic Monthly decided to put out a call on social media websites to you, the consumers of news, to give us your perspectives on what you witnessed last week through the lens of a concerned, involved viewer.

Here 18 perspectives from 18 people from all over the world, from all different backgrounds and from all different careers and social roles on their reactions to the handling and coverage of the Boston Bombings.

1. As the Dust Settles

Now that the dust has settled and the citizens of Boston and Massachusetts can breathe with a little more ease, it’s time for some reflection and a good old history lesson. The capture and killing of alleged “Boston Bombers”, brothers Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has once again highlighted the struggle for the civil rights of Muslim Americans-specifically Muslims in Boston. Immediately following the attacks on the Boston Marathon, the response of the Muslim community in Boston was to help organize and participate in vigils and interfaith services for the victims across the city. The community’s history of being viewed with suspicion forced it to engage local leaders of other faiths, working to separate the actions of a few from a large and diverse group.

In 2005, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney suggested wiretapping mosques and conducting surveillance of foreign students in the state. Similar calls continue to be made today. Years of cooperation with law enforcement officials did not stop Muslims participating in the marathon, present in the audience, and injured in the attacks from being interviewed as potential suspects with little to suspect involvement other than presence, religion, and skin tone. Almost ironically, the Tsarnaevs are ethnic Chechens and thus Caucasian.

The Boston FBI office has a long history of intimidation of those who are devout or with alternative views in the local Muslim community. One such case of intimidation and false accusation lead to the imprisonment of 29 year-old Tariq Mehanna. Mehanna currently sits in federal prison serving a 17 year sentence, found guilty on charges of aiding and abetting overseas terrorism for translation of material deemed subversive. In a statement following Mehanna’s sentencing, the Massachusetts director of the ACLU, Carol Rose said, “The ACLU of Massachusetts is gravely concerned that today’s verdict against Tarek Mehanna undermines the First Amendment and threatens national security.

For years prior to Mehanna’s case the FBI spied on him through his own friends, using them to potentially entrap him. Mehanna’s problems began after visiting Yemen in 2004. The government accused him of attempting to join a terrorist training camp-something it was never able to prove. Mehanna has stated that the FBI tried to entrap him and even tried to recruit him to spy on others. The star witness for the government was one of Mehanna’s associates and coreligionist, himself having been forced by the FBI to record what Mehanna and others were saying.

Already, Dzhokhar has been denied his Miranda Rights being read to him on the grounds of “public security”. It remains to be seen whether or not the case of the Tsarnaev brothers involved other violations of their civil liberties.

For now, it’s safe to say that the Boston Muslim community’s cooperation has bared little to no fruit. And that’s not likely to change any time soon.

Omar Duwaji, Washington DC

Al Jazeera English Intern and Boston native
@MidEasternist [2]

2. Breaking it First

As this bizarre story picked up, many viewed it as a microcosm of the rivalry between old and new-media: everyone was struggling to break the news first. Twitter and Reddit exploded with live updates from the scene, photos, tangible background info, and even historical facts about the marathon. Yet the stream of factual updates and media coming out of Boston was combined with endless misinformation; suspect names, false religious and ethnic ties, and even baseless numbers of casualties and injuries. Baseless stories were amplified into global trending topics and mainstream discussions. The NY Post wrongfully fingered an innocent “Saudi person of interest” and cable and Twitter made it go viral. Redditors pushed the theory that a missing Brown student was one of the bombers, streamlining it into social media and MSM. The name of an injured Saudi medical student was circulated so heavily on the web that people started contacting the wrong namesake in Geneva. Even non-profit news organizations that were once renowned for their reliability such as the AP incorrectly reported on Wednesday that a Boston Marathon suspect had been arrested.

Because of our obsession with breaking news, we gave these stories power, and inadvertently damaged the reputations of both students. Not to mention the uninvited media spotlight that came their way, and the stress affiliated with it. How will they deal with the uninvited attention? Will this hurt their career prospects? Will they be victims of hate crimes? Will this hurt the search efforts for the missing Brown students? I don’t know. I just know that these questions could have been easily avoided with more cautious news reporting.

Maybe our current technologies are getting us too caught up in these stories. Maybe we should demand less breaking, and more factual news.

Ahmed Al Majd, Dhahran, SAUDI ARABIA

Contributor at Wamda [3], covering KSA
@ahmed_oo [4]

3. Media Distractions or Reflections of Our Response?

I’m surprised that there wasn’t more “Al Qaeda did it” type speculation than what has actually occurred so far, as this type of bombing seems an obvious draw for that sort of thing.  Many of the media responses do fit the typical pattern of over reporting some single dramatic event (shooting, single murder, etc.), and attempting to report some sort of story to go along with it, even if the details don’t exist to support one.  As usual with these sorts of events, I find it surprising that this one is getting as much attention as it is, when other events (Gun Control laws, Oil spill, and Oil Pipeline fights in particular) are occurring at the same time, have much more information to talk about, and will almost certainly effect far more people than the single bombing where little is known. 

I’m not sure how much these tendencies are a deliberate media decision, vs. a reflection of how most people would respond anyway.  How exactly the Boston explosions will play out is something I’ll have to see, but I do worry when, say, attention and policy seem to focus on some issue only when a major event occurs (Mass shootings in the case of gun control are the most recent), and how much may be going on without my knowledge, that I may have an interest in.  Not having worked in a media system, I’m not sure how consciously planned the focus on Chechnya as a connection, or the “dark skinned male” type comments are, but either way it seems strange and worrying that either someone would want to deliberately push that angle of the story, or cannot report events properly due to a strong instinct to tell a pre-programmed story.

Dillon, Chicago IL

Graduate student
Blog: PiclyHub [5]

4. White Murderer VS Brown Terrorist

The US media failed badly in its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings: reporting was not only riddled with errors, it was tinged with ill-concealed racism and ethnocentrism.  From the New York Post’s Monday afternoon story that authorities had arrested a Saudi national (actually a witness); to CNN’s report on Wednesday that a “dark-skinned male” had been identified as a suspect (no such suspect existed); to Thursday, when the FBI finally released pictures of the two suspects and CNN pored suspiciously over the photos, uncertain whether the suspects looked American: in all of these cases, the media cast terrorism suspects as non-white foreign nationals, and some even tied the crimes in Boston to al-Qaeda, trying to further emphasize the non-white, non-Western origins of terrorism.  But it turned out that the people who allegedly planted the bombs were in fact Caucasians—from the Caucasus, even!—and although they did not grow up solely in the US, they are both US citizens.  Their stories are far more complex than the media would like us to believe; they do not easily fit into foreign or domestic or white or non-white boxes.  And we must recognize that our knee-jerk tendency to oversimplify stories about terrorism damages our ability to understand it.

Why, when the vast majority of terrorist incidents in the US are actually committed by white US citizens, does the US media so readily engage narratives of terrorists as non-white foreign nationals?  How does it serve us to seek the source of homegrown terrorism elsewhere?  And when discussing terrorism of non-US origin, why does the US so rarely explore what motivates it—why do we never seem to go deeper than Dan Rather’s fatuous “they hate us for our freedoms?” When will we stop ignoring the effects of US foreign policy, which helped to arm those who blew up the twin towers, which ceaselessly exploits other countries and peoples for their resources, and which inflames anti-US sentiment with drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen?  If the US wants to reduce the likelihood of terrorism, it must first understand how the actions of the US government foster resentment and then seek to mitigate it, and to start that process, we must abandon the trite fables we so readily use to construct terrorists as fundamentally different from ourselves.  Or, we can continue to paint terrorism as foreign, as non-Western, as Other, and cement in place the idea that we do not need to ask why people might commit such acts, and preclude the possibility that we might ever stop them.

David Walton, Eugene, OR

Software developer, systems administrator, and former historian.
@dwalton1 [6]

5. Creating Guilt and Blind Belief

My family and I were fixated in front of the television for over five hours, following media coverage of the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev manhunt. There are many things that are perplexing. For example, the media pointed to Dzhokhar’s tweets as illustrating “unease and discontent,” pointing to a tweet which read “I don’t know why it’s hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job, I mean I guess fuck the facts y’all are some real #patriots [7] #gethip [8].” He’s not the first or the last person to have doubts 9/11. Tweets like this are hardly proof for illustrating that he harbored terrorist leanings.

What upsets me the most is that we are never given access to the footage serving as the determining factor in identifying these suspects. We are never shown the suspects putting down the explosive packages [conclusively]. We thus are compelled to accept, without question, the FBI’s determination that these two boys are responsible.

M.B, Illinois

B.A. Sociology Honors from McGill University

6. Loss of Ethical Information Sharing

I think what the Boston media coverage highlighted overall, is the need to take a step back and engage in responsible and ethical journalism, be it on mass media or social media. Time for analysis and gathering facts and reporting accurate information is the need of the hour, not per second updates. For those on social media, it is just as important to verify sources and think before sharing information. In volatile situations such as these, incorrect information can lead to situations that can quickly get out of control.

Tehani Ariyaratne, SRI LANKA

Researcher, blogger and activist

7. Naming Victims and Global Media Coverage

To be fair on the Boston Authorities – I think that their choices [in apprehending the suspect] where actually limited by the extent of the media coverage. It is difficult to see how they could have responded in any other way. For me the global media coverage was the key issue – especially when compared to the coverage that western media outlets gave to the Baghdad Cafe Bombing. At its simplest you could argue that the difference in coverage is an indicator of just how deeply embedded racism is. That racism not only expresses itself in the extent of the coverage but also in quality. We know the names of the victims of the Boston bombing; we know their stories and we know about the dreams that were extinguished. But this kind of detail is missing from the global coverage of the Baghdad bombing – the stories are absent, there are no histories and no futures – simply statistics.

Mark Brown, Brighton, UNITED KINGDOM

@markliamb [9]

8. Making Good Muslims, Taking Care of The ‘Crazies’

I’ve been observing the language used by both mainstream and alternative media when talking about the suspects’ “religiosity” and “increased commitment to Islam” as somehow natural signifiers for radicalization. Subtle, blanket statements such as ones that describe Tamerlan Tsarnev as a “devout Muslim who prayed five times a day,” or Uncle Ruslan’s alleged falling out with Tamerlan Tsarnev “over Islam,” or a neighbor commenting that Tamerlan “grew a beard” or that his wife “wore a hijab” (a fact which The Telegraph saw as worthy of its own news piece…) are particularly telling. Even now that the FBI has confirmed the suspect’s ties to “radical Islam”, media sources thought it OK to assume – in the days leading their capture – that regardless of the facts, their “Muslimness” must be it (the cover photo for the LA Time’s coverage of the FBI’s statements is a picture of Prophetic sayings to be recited after prayer in scary-looking Arabic script, with the caption: “A sign outlining “obligatory prayers” hangs on the sanctuary at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Cambridge, Mass., where the Tsarnaev brothers had attended.” Obligatory? Yeesh! Such statements and representations point to an increasing underlying stigmatization of practicing normative “dogmatic” Islam (bad) as opposed to being non-practicing and “Westernized” “cultural Muslim” (good).

Representations of “devoutness” when it comes to explaining Muslim criminal behavior is hence very similar to the claim of insanity when a white male perpetrator commits similar large-scale acts of violence. The only difference is the latter is “excusable”, while the former is reprehensible and inherently evil. It’s as if the only good Muslim – in the American/ Western understanding – is not a Muslim at all, or if push-comes-to-shove, a “watered-down” Muslim.

I just hope and pray that this trajectory of massive public fear-mongering will not translate into (further) ramped- up restrictions on the rights and civil liberties of Muslims in America. After all, murdering crazies know no religion, and it’s probably safe to assume that most people – let alone most Muslims – aren’t murdering crazies.

Farah El-Sharif, Berkeley CA

MA Candidate in Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union

9. Forget ‘White’ Privilege if You’re Muslim

The hysteria surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings has proved that in identifying a criminal, religion supersedes race as the common factor for vilification. A combination of inflammatory print and television media rhetoric and Islamophobia rampant in various blogs have led those seeking to target Muslims in the past to other brown folk, most recently Sikhs. In the Sikh temple shootings, the “brownness” and perceived foreignness of Sikhs, leading them to be confused with Muslims, led a man to shoot and kill. Their perceived identity as Muslims made them targets, although they had no affiliation with the Muslim faith. The conflation of racial and religious identities led to murder.

In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings suspects, as soon as their names and nation of origin became known, their “Muslimness” took center stage as the key identifier in media coverage. It did not matter that they were white, literally Caucasian; their classification as Muslims—even without anyone actually knowing what their level of practice was—led the press to their “Ah ha!” moment in hypothesizing and conjecturing a motive for this heinous crime. Such coverage fuels the sense of panic already present in a population rightfully defensive and fearful at a vulnerable time.

This case has proven even if your race aligns with the mainstream, if your religion does not, you should not expect any modicum of objectivity from the media.

Deanna Othman, Chicago IL

Assistant Editor of Islamic Horizons and serves on the Editorial Board of the Chicago Crescent.
@deannaothman [10]

10. City Upon a Hill

As with any incident of this kind, initial reports can be inaccurate, leading to wrongful characterizations and stereotypes of certain groups.  As a nation, it is imperative to remember our values of justice, compassion, and equal protection under the law that are for all people. For me, these values are echoed in the Prophet Muhammad’s statement: “…Not one of you truly believes until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself.” It is an ethic spoken in one hundred languages and in every conceivable form of prayer. It is an ethic central to Islam. It is the ethic central to our civil liberties that has built America. In John Winthrop’s famous City Upon a Hill sermon, the steeple of the church is seen at the center of the hill, serving as a beacon of light unto the world–a shining example of religious freedom. But we have to recognize that the church is now surrounded by mosques, where Muslims congregate to the call to prayer on Friday afternoons, synagogues where Jews congregate on Friday evenings for Shabbat services, by temples where Buddhists gather to sing their sangas, and you can still hear the church bells ringing every Sunday morning.

Mustafa Abdullah, St. Louis MO

Program Associate at the ACLU if Eastern Missouri and Community Organizer
@GlobalNomad87 [11]
Facebook [12]

11. Czech Yourself

On Wednesday, April 17th, the New Yorker featured an article The Saudi Marathon Man, in which Amy Davidson writes that perhaps we lack humility when we jump to labeling suspects based on the fact that they’re suspicious-looking. But then this begs the question: what makes them suspicious-looking? Is it that if it looks like a Middle Easterner, sounds like a Middle Easterner, then it must be a terrorist? Because that’s sure what it seems like. It is far more than humility that we are lacking and we must re-evaluate just how far is too far. Substantial mistakes, like the ones that occurred this past week, only fuel the fire that unfortunately burns bright throughout the world, even within our own borders.  We terrorized a family whose son is still missing; we had to be reminded that there is a difference between the Czech Republic and Chechnya; and we were once again bombarded with ‘brown man’-phobia, Islamophobia, Middle-East-phobia.

Be kind, even in the midst of absolute chaos.

Chloe Rowshani, Los Angeles CA

Student at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles
Blog: ShitChloeSays [13]
@Dandelions [14]

12. Is My Citizenship Contingent on My Religion?

Something that really struck me about this situation was that we learned that no matter how many years you’ve spent here after immigrating, be it more than half your life or even most and even if you are a naturalized citizen, you’ve gone to school here and fully assimilated into culture, you will still not be considered an American. What baffles me about this is that most Americans are descendants of immigrants, so what gives us the right to say that this boy was not considered an American? Was it because he is Muslim? Is that what set off the rampant Islamophobia and racism against him? Does my citizenship get revoked because I’m Muslim?

Ainee Fatima, Chicago IL

Spoken Word Artist, Social Activist and Blogger majoring in Islamic World Studies at Depaul University.
@Faineemae [15]

13. What Not To Do As a Journalist

As an intern journalist who is watching changes in the industry unfold, it seems to be easier to find examples of ‘what not to do’ lately, and especially in the case of the recent bombings in Boston. My first source for news is usually CBC, whose web coverage comes through the RSS on my Google home page. I will be changing this following the Boston bombings, however, following several glaring grammatical errors in their coverage. They also had a headline that echoed CNN’s mistake, which suggested the suspect had been arrested when he had not, and the article itself just gave conflicting accounts from other sources. You could tell it was rushed for publication.

I usually go looking for additional perspectives after getting the general story, but unfortunately, I do not think that these perspectives would be easy to find by the general public, who often just generally want to know what is happening. That or, the now-famous mistakes by CNN and the ever-changing and confusing coverage by the other big networks, could be the thing that drives more people towards other, smaller but more reliable, and now professional news or opinion sources.

I came across a quote, in one of the many articles, which read “Now is the time for patience, now is the time for professionalism…” following the arrest of the bombing suspect. I found myself asking: when is it ever excusable to not take be putting those into practice, especially as a journalist?

Vanessa Gallant, Moncton, CANADA

Freelance Journalist
@vcgallant  [16]

14. America Needs a Better Brand of Journalism.

“They seem pretty cocky…just sort of walking through the crowd like nothings going on” remarked Wolf <a Blitzer, while providing his critical analysis of the surveillance video showing the two suspects. He and his news team went on to debate whether or not the two people shown in the video “looked American” or not. While mildly jingoistic musings, inane chatter to fill time when news isn’t happening, and grossly inaccurate reporting for the sake of “exclusive” are CNN staples, the reporting during this tragedy cements the fact that Americans deserve better and should demand better. That CNN acts as the main source of current events information for a larger number of Americans is a depressing fact, and fuels a downward spiral best described by Mike Judge as an “Idiocracy”.

Jesse Gainer, Montréal, CANADA

Digital Specialist, Rogers Media and drummer for Talk-sick

15. Is this the American Dream?

Dzhokar Tsarnaev is unable to speak due to a gunshot wound to the throat and was deprived of his Miranda Rights. A prominent American politician, Senator Lindsay Graham has  suggested treating Tsarnaev as an ‘enemy combatant.’ The hypocrisy is telling. The Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people, wounding over 800. He was, however, read his Miranda rights.

Maybe this is that American dream.

Voris Cunningham, UNITED STATES

Activist and Writer
@V_Cunning [17]
Blog: Voris Cunningham [18]

16. Responsible Media, Responsible Citizens

Like clockwork, hate crimes quickly followed the media’s insinuation of blame around South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims. A hijab-clad woman in Boston was assaulted, a Bangladeshi man in Queens was beaten up outside a restaurant, a Pakistani friend of mine was told “hope you don’t blow us up!” as she was on her way to work. Would the frequency of hate crimes occur had the American media been more sensible in their reporting? The mainstream media’s quick blame game directly links to the emotionally overzealous and racially charged sentiment of certain segments of the American public. In times of mass confusion, such as last week, it is the responsibility of the media to provide the American public with fair and transparent reporting. Instead, we received racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic laden insults, conspiracy theories, and minute by minute sensationalism. Whereas America is argued to be the world’s greatest “melting pot” — proudly displaying its ethnic, racial, and religious heterogeneity — its mainstream media speaks of a different story.

Sania Sufi, Chicago IL

@SaniaSufi [19]
Blog: Sania Sufi [20]

17. Pathologizing Islam and Pax Americana

In the aftermath of a week of mainstream media coverage and elite political figure’s statements related to the Boston Marathon bombing, the ongoing processes of pathologizing Islam and its significance for Pax Americana are made evident. Initial questions about whether this bombing was the work of domestic or foreign terrorists or the work of “lone” wolves quickly turned to claims about Arab individuals, international students, and dark-skinned men with foreign accents as “persons-of-interest” and “suspects.” The specter of dangerous foreign “others” in Boston overshadowed the likely homegrown white-supremacist-Christian terrorism lying behind the eerie fertilizer factory explosion in Waco, Texas close to the 20th anniversary of the FBI massacre of the Branch Davidian “cult.” Fourteen dead, scores injured, and an entire town left demolished; however this devastating event was hurriedly pushed out of the news cycle and political rhetoric without any answers for why this blast occurred. The irrationality of this differential response became even more apparent after the FBI released and posted pictures of two suspected bombers and the subsequent massive military mobilization of forces and technologies to corner, capture, and kill these young men. As their identities as Muslim Chechens became known, the media began to speculate about their links to international terrorism and their presumed religious motives.

Meanwhile, the unprecedented military mobilization of armed units, tanks and helicopters, and declaration of Boston as a No-fly zone culminated in the killing of the older brother and eventual capture of his injured teenage sibling. Although, the apparent lack of organization, exit strategy, and funds suggested to some that they were “lone wolves,” most media began to depict them as brainwashed followers of a “cult”: Islam. In contrast to white-supremacist-Christian terrorists, who whether as “lone” perpetrators or group members, are cast as pathological individuals equipped with a marginal ideology, the Tsarnaev brothers, like others before them, were cast as followers of a pathological religion. As the story goes, first the older brother, Tamerlan became more pious—praying and asking his wife to wear a headscarf—and was brainwashed by Chechen terrorist groups and he in turn indoctrinated his younger brother. In both instances, they are depicted as passive believers in a pathological ideology. These mental representations and fears of “Muslim others,” not only motivated initial speculations, massive mobilizations, violent political rhetoric, and jubilant post-capture celebrations, but also justified the stripping of rights from the arrested Muslim suspect. Dzhokhar, a naturalized US citizen, was not read his Miranda rights with the Obama administration evoking the “public safety exception.” Several US Senators are calling for him to be “legally” categorized as an “enemy combatant.” These misrepresentations of Islam and reproductions of irrational fears of Muslim “others,” also animate excessive acts of violence against, and denials of rights and personhood to, Muslims overseas under Pax Americana.

Timothy P. Daniels, New York

Associate Professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University

18. Whataboutery, Dissent and Mourning

I used to resent Boston because I mainly associated it with Irish-Americans who paid for bombs in Northern Ireland during the Troubles without going through the inconvenience of living there. I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I am still trying to get my head around it all.

When I was growing up, it was people who looked and sounded like me who were the default terrorists. That shorthand never went away, it just got transferred to others. The way the world talks about it now, you’d think terrorism was only invented in 2001. But one thing has not changed: how acts of violence are expanded to implicate entire communities, the scrutiny having merely shifted from Irish names to Muslim ones.

A friend online urged us to spare a thought for the 55 people who died in Iran on the same day [as the Boston Bombings], which shocked me until I realized she had meant to say Iraq, where it seemed not unusual at all. Some online commentators were questioning why lives in the USA were more important than lives elsewhere, and I wonder this too. But then I recalled whataboutery, a term coined in Northern Ireland, one of its definitions being “protesting at inconsistency; refusing to act in one instance unless similar action is taken in other similar instances.” I do not want to engage in whataboutery. I can question the scapegoating of communities, the disproportionate attention afforded to American losses, and the lack of legal rights extended to a teenage suspect, but I must also mourn.

Nine, Lyttelton, NEW ZEALAND

Writer and Editor