Following the identification of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev as primary suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, there was an uptick in scrutiny of the brothers’ ethnicity. The two brothers have ancestry in the Chechen Republic, a Russian federal subject that has been involved in a long, violent conflict with the government over the republic’s sovereignty.
Immediately, various commentators rushed to find a connection between the brothers’ background and motives for the bombing, despite no evidence that the attacks were politically or religiously motivated. The media typifies a distinctly America nationalist narrative that demonizes anyone perceived as foreign or exotic.
Writing in the National Post, Jonathan Kay casually referred to Chechnya as having a “culture of terror.” Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post suggested the brothers, neither of whom had ever lived in Chechnya, might have been in touch with Chechen separatists. Will Stewart of The New York Daily News wrote, “But plenty of Chechens did get radicalized, perhaps because of the scars of history, and it now seems these brothers were among them.”
No terrorist groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks. At this stage, there is very little evidence to make any legitimate claim as to why the attacks were carried out. Yet, this has not stopped the media from doing just that. This is not surprising, given the media’s propensity to sensationalize and editorialize non-Americans.
When Adam Lanza, a white male, fatally shot 26 people in Newtown, Conn. in December, the media’s reaction focused on Lanza’s mental health. Similarly, the media discussed and speculated on James Holmes’ mental health after he killed 12 at a movie theater in Colorado. Apparently, if a non-American carries out a large-scale attack, it must have been intricately planned, with a political or religious motive.
This is not merely a benign media trend. These types of assumptions and speculations have consequences. On Wednesday April 17, a man punched a Palestinian woman in a suburb of Boston, shouting, “Fuck you, Muslims!” at her. This attack came after incorrect reports surfaced of a dark-skinned “Saudi national” being the primary suspect in the Boston Marathon case.
On Monday April 15, the day of the bombing, a group of men beat up a Bangladeshi man in the Bronx. Abdullah Faruque was outside smoking a cigarette when a group of men approached him and asked if he was an Arab. The men left Faruque unconscious with a dislocated shoulder.
Whether this incident had to do with the reports from that day of a “Saudi national” suspect is anyone’s guess. The fact remains that no good can come from the media’s fervent insistence on finding a political and religious dimension in attacks where there likely may not be one.
Apart from being dishonest, it homogenizes persons of common ethnicity and religion. When you reduce an entire ethnicity or religion to a stereotype informed by sensationalism, it is essentially inviting pushback against persons of that ethnicity or religion.
Time will tell if the Boston attacks had a political or religious motive. Until conclusive evidence comes out one way or the other, however, speculating on one is completely unnecessary.