The Boston Bombing Produces Familiar and Revealing Reactions

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There’s not much to say about Monday’s Boston Marathon attack because there is virtually no known evidence regarding who did it or why. There are, however, several points to be made about some of the widespread reactions to this incident. Much of that reaction is all-too-familiar and quite revealing in important ways:

(1) The widespread compassion for yesterday’s victims and the intense anger over the attacks was obviously authentic and thus good to witness. But it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the US perpetrates rather than suffers. These are exactly the kinds of horrific, civilian-slaughtering attacks that the US has been bringing to countries in the Muslim world over and over and over again for the last decade, with very little attention paid. My Guardian colleague Gary Younge put this best on Twitter this morning:

younge tweet

Juan Cole this morning makes a similar point about violence elsewhere. Indeed, just yesterday in Iraq, at least 42 people were killed and more than 250 injured by a series of car bombs, the enduring result of the US invasion and destruction of that country. Somehow the deep compassion and anger felt in the US when it is attacked never translates to understanding the effects of our own aggression against others.

One particularly illustrative example I happened to see yesterday was a re-tweet from Washington Examiner columnist David Freddoso, proclaiming:

Idea of secondary bombs designed to kill the first responders is just sick. How does anyone become that evil?”

I don’t disagree with that sentiment. But I’d bet a good amount of money that the person saying it – and the vast majority of other Americans – have no clue that targeting rescuers with “double-tap” attacks is precisely what the US now does with its drone program and other forms of militarism. If most Americans knew their government and military were doing this, would they react the same way as they did to yesterday’s Boston attack: “Idea of secondary bombs designed to kill the first responders is just sick. How does anyone become that evil?” That’s highly doubtful, and that’s the point.

There’s nothing wrong per se with paying more attention to tragedy and violence that happens relatively nearby and in familiar places. Whether wrong or not, it’s probably human nature, or at least human instinct, to do that, and that happens all over the world. I’m not criticizing that. But one wishes that the empathy for victims and outrage over the ending of innocent human life that instantly arises when the US is targeted by this sort of violence would at least translate into similar concern when the US is perpetrating it, as it so often does (far, far more often than it is targeted by such violence).

Regardless of your views of justification and intent: whatever rage you’re feeling toward the perpetrator of this Boston attack, that’s the rage in sustained form that people across the world feel toward the US for killing innocent people in their countries. Whatever sadness you feel for yesterday’s victims, the same level of sadness is warranted for the innocent people whose lives are ended by American bombs. However profound a loss you recognize the parents and family members of these victims to have suffered, that’s the same loss experienced by victims of US violence. It’s natural that it won’t be felt as intensely when the victims are far away and mostly invisible, but applying these reactions to those acts of US aggression would go a long way toward better understanding what they are and the outcomes they generate.

(2) The rush, one might say the eagerness, to conclude that the attackers were Muslim was palpable and unseemly, even without any real evidence. The New York Post quickly claimed that the prime suspect was a Saudi national (while also inaccurately reporting that 12 people had been confirmed dead). The Post’s insinuation of responsibility was also suggested on CNN by Former Bush Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend (“We know that there is one Saudi national who was wounded in the leg who is being spoken to”). Former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman went on CNN togrossly speculate that Muslim groups were behind the attack. Anti-Muslim bigots like Pam Geller predictably announced that this was “Jihad in America”. Expressions of hatred for Muslims, and a desire to do violence, were then spewing forth all over Twitter (some particularly unscrupulous partisan Democrat types were identically suggesting with zero evidence that the attackers were right-wing extremists).

Obviously, it’s possible that the perpetrator(s) will turn out to be Muslim, just like it’s possible they will turn out to be extremist right-wing activists, or left-wing agitators, or Muslim-fearing Anders-Breivik types, or lone individuals driven by apolitical mental illness. But the rush to proclaim the guilty party to be Muslim is seen in particular over and over with such events. Recall that on the day of the 2011 Oslo massacre by a right-wing, Muslim-hating extremist, the New York Times spent virtually the entire day strongly suggesting in its headlines that an Islamic extremist group was responsible, a claim other major news outlets (including the BBC and Washington Post) then repeated as fact. The same thing happened with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when most major US media outlets strongly suggested that the perpetrators were Muslims. As FAIR documented back then:

“In the wake of the explosion that destroyed the Murrah Federal Office Building, the media rushed — almost en masse — to the assumption that the bombing was the work of Muslim extremists. ‘The betting here is on Middle East terrorists,’ declared CBS News’ Jim Stewart just hours after the blast (4/19/95). ‘The fact that it was such a powerful bomb in Oklahoma City immediately drew investigators to consider deadly parallels that all have roots in the Middle East,’ ABC’s John McWethy proclaimed the same day.

“‘It has every single earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East,’ wrote syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer (Chicago Tribune, 4/21/95). ‘Whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working,’ declared the New York Times’ A.M. Rosenthal (4/21/95). The Geyer and Rosenthal columns were filed after the FBI released sketches of two suspects who looked more like Midwestern frat boys than mujahideen.”

This lesson is never learned because, it seems, many people don’t want to learn it. Even when it turns out not to have been Muslims who perpetrated the attack but rather right-wing, white Christians, the damage from this relentless and reflexive blame-pinning endures.

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