Media coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings has overwhelmingly focused on the search for explanations outside of the United States. To be sure, the bombings and shootings attributed to the Tsarnaev brothers were unconscionable. Also unconscionable, however, has been the reportage of events promulgating a discourse of danger that makes Boston central to the global narrative of terrorism. Lost in the move to connect Islam and the Tsarnaev’s Chechen heritage with terrorism is the role of schools and communities in the United States in addressing the alienation that led the brothers to committing such acts of violence.
Immediately after they were identified, the Tsarnaev brothers’ ethnicity and religion became part of the story. A map indicating Chechnya as their place of ethnic origin and Kyrgyzstan as their place of birth became central to early reports, leading readers to tie the brothers to militant Islamic activities and implicating the former Soviet region as dangerous and terrorist-ridden.
It is reported that the brothers were born in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, part of an ethnic population Stalin deported from Chechnya in 1944 in retaliation for alleged cooperation with the Nazis during World War II. The implication of such historical notes is that the Tsarnaevs are, by virtue of their very lineage, an extension of a rebellious past. As an anthropologist who has worked on Kyrgyzstan since 1999, I can attest that the ethnographic record does not bear out a correlation between the ethnic Chechens in Tokmok and a dangerous present.
Reports connecting the Tsarnaev brothers to Chechnya and Dagestan, and linking them to the Islamist-led Chechen independence movement also exploit the historical record to (mis)lead readers into drawing threatening assumptions about the brothers being a logical extension of the acts of terror perpetrated by the Chechen independence fighters. The story of the Chechen independence fighters is one typically told by the Russian government justifying their draconian response to secessionist movements in the Caucasus. No evidence connects the Tsarnaev brothers with the Chechen independence movement. But placing them within a preexisting history of resistance simplifies our perception of who they “really” are: their ethnicity and encounters with Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus implicate them as dangerous. It is a narrative that does not have to be true—only repeated—to have an impact.
Religion plays a role here, but not in the way frequently assumed. American Islamaphobia seems so natural that few recognize it as a form of racism as pernicious to constitutional ideals as the Jim Crow laws. We do not know, of course, if the April 19 manhunt would have shut down the city were it not so easy to connect the Tsarnaev’s to the post-September 11 association of Islam and terrorism. But certainly it was in that context that the lockdown was justified. Making anything Islamist intensifies the perception of danger and palliates the uneasiness one feels towards a government’s encroachment on rights.
Shutting down the city precipitates many questions of exceptionalism about rights—e.g. Miranda rights not being read to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev because of the Patriot Act, or a possible expansion of public surveillance and responses to it. Is locking down a city the new norm for responding to such threats? Or is this, as so much in the “war on terror,” an exception? Being in Boston at the time, it was clear that what the lockdown succeeded in doing was creating both an atmosphere of threat and a false sense of security. There were, after all, three days of the city functioning between the Monday bombing and the Friday lockdown.
The lockdown was justified as a security measure and falls in line with ongoing securitization efforts accompanying the global “war on terror.” Inherent to securitization is the assumption that any Muslim praying holds allegiances that are potentially threatening to the state. It is along these lines that Islam gets portrayed as a threat, and that headlines implied there was something subversive about Tamerlan Tsarnaev having found solace in Islamic prayer. The perverse suggestion is that the peace one may find in Islam is somehow bound up with a logical explanation for the Boston bombings.
Perhaps most significantly, however, is that in the various ways the story has been told, Bostonians, and Americans more generally, have displaced responsibility for the Tsarnaev brothers. We are told that the Tsarnaev’s had their roots in a dangerous Muslim area and that all went awry when they found Islam. Nothing could be more destructive than such self-deception.
Neither Islam nor ethnic heritage is the explanation for what led the Tsarnaevs to do what they did. They spent formative years in Boston, being educated there and, seemingly, knowing life there better than anywhere else. It is through our communities that we are connected to these events, and it is in those communities that we should begin our search for explanations.