RUSHING TO JUDGEMENT IN BOSTON

Two related reports ….
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Obama’s rush to judgment: Was the Boston bombing really a “terrorist” act?

 Ali Abunimah
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President Obama has repeatedly claimed that the Boston Marathon bombing was an “act of terror” and that its alleged perpetrators are “terrorists.”

It may seem pointless to quibble with this description: after all what could be more “terroristic” than setting off bombs at a peaceful sporting event killing three persons, one a child, and injuring or horrifically maiming dozens more?

But in fact how the act is described is very important in determining government, media and wider societal responses, including ramping up racism and bigotry against Muslims, Arabs or people of color.

There can be no doubt that the Boston Marathon bombing was a murderous act, but does it –– based on what is known –– fit the US government’s own definitions of “terrorism”?

It is important to recall that other, far more lethal recent events, including the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado and the school massacre at Sandy Hook, Connecticut havenot been termed “terrorism,” nor their perpetrators labeled “terrorist” by the government. Why?

Obama’s changing descriptions

In his first statement shortly after news emerged of the bombing in Boston on 15 April 2013, Obama pointedly did not describe the attack as “terrorism.” The term is totally absent from his statement. He does say, “We still do not know who did this or why. And people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts.”

It was only the next day on Tuesday, 16 April, that Obama first called the bombing an “act of terrorism” after media had pressed the White House on the issue.

Last night, after 19-year-old suspect Dzhokar Tsarnaev was captured by police, Obama made a statement declaring: “We will investigate any associations that these terroristsmay have had. And we’ll continue to do whatever we have to do to keep our people safe.”

In his weekly video address today, Obama reaffirmed, “on Monday an act of terrorwounded dozens and killed three people at the Boston Marathon.”

Official definitions of “terrorism”

The US government has no single definition of “terrorism” but the National Institute of Justice at the US Department of Justice points to two influential standards that are in use, one enshrined in law and the other provided by the FBI:

Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Both definitions of terrorism share a common theme: the use of force intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal. In most cases, NIJ researchers adopt the FBI definition, which stresses methods over motivations and is generally accepted by law enforcement communities.

What was the “political” or “social” goal of the Boston bombing?

Based on these definitions, what distinguishes a “mass shooting” such as Aurora or Sandy Hook on the one hand, from an act of “terrorism” on the other, is that the mass shooters have no political goals. Their act is nihilistic and is not carried out in furtherance of any particular cause.

So far, however, absolutely no evidence has emerged that the Boston bombing suspects acted “in furtherance of political or social objectives” or that their alleged act was “intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal.”

Nor is there any evidence that they are part of a group.

Neither of the suspects is known to have made any statement of a political or other goal for their alleged action and there has been no claim of responsibility. Obama, in his statement last night, admitted as much:

Obviously, tonight there are still many unanswered questions. Among them, why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence? How did they plan and carry out these attacks, and did they receive any help?

So why is Obama calling them “terrorists?

Since Obama has no idea why the alleged suspects may have resorted to violence and no one else has offered an evidence-based explanation, why is Obama already labeling them “terrorists” when he himself warned against a “rush to judgment?”

The only explanation I can think of is the suspects’ identification as ethnic Chechens and Muslims, even though there is no evidence that they acted either in relation to events in their ancestral homeland or were motivated by any Islamist ideology.

Obama seems to be going on the careless, prejudiced assumption so common on cable television: they’re Muslims, so they must be “terrorists.”

This may be the easy and populist way of looking at it, pandering to prejudice as Obama so often does, but it is irresponsible and violates official US policy that Obama seemed, at least on the first day, willing to observe.

How acts are labeled is highly political: recall the controversy over whether Obama was quick enough to label the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last September as “terrorism,” and the continuing demands that the government designate the November 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, allegedly perpetrated by Major Nidal Hasan, as “terrorism.”

All of these cases reinforce the widely noted observation that acts of violence, especially mass shootings, carried out typically by white males are immediately labeled as the acts of “disturbed individuals” while the acts of a person identified as “Muslim” are to be labeled “terrorism” regardless of the facts.

These are unsafe assumptions and foreclose the possibility of full understanding. Moreover, by reinforcing popular stereotypes, they give new force to the anti-Muslim backlash that seems only to be growing stronger and more poisonous as the 11 September 2001 attacks recede into the past.

It is also important to note the contrast between Obama’s eagerness to label the Boston attack as “terror” and its alleged perpetrators as “terrorists” – without evidence – and hisreluctance to label last August’s mass murder at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin as “terrorism” despite the identification of the shooter as having a history of white nationalist and supremacist activism.

Perhaps the first serious consequence of labeling Boston a “terrorist” attack was the Obama administration’s decision to deprive the suspect who was captured of his constitutional right to receive a Miranda warning on arrest, a further thinning of the already threadbare pretense of “rule of law” in post 11 September 2001 America.

Could this be another “Columbine?”

Let’s consider another possibility. Exactly 14 years ago today, 20 April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed a carefully-planned attack on Columbine High School in Colorado, using guns and bombs.

The two seniors murdered 12 fellow students and one teacher before shooting themselves.

Like the Boston Marathon bombing allegedly was, the Columbine attack was carried out by two persons, and it involved some of the same methods: homemade explosives.

But the Columbine attack is remembered as a “school shooting” or a “mass shooting” – perhaps the most iconic of a sad litany of such events – but not a “terrorist” attack.

In his essential 2009 book Columbine, Dave Cullen tells the story of the attack in meticulous detail, debunking many of the popular stereotypes that persist to this day that the attack was meant to avenge bullying by “jocks.”

The evidence that emerged is that Harris was a clinically sadistic sociopath who had no ability to empathize with other human beings. Klebold was a depressive whom Harris was able to manipulate. These facts lay at the heart of what happened.

It is definitely not any more desirable in the wake of such atrocities to have a media frenzy stigmatizing all people with mental illness as potential killers any more than we want them to stigmatize all Muslims as potential terrorists – in fact people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else, and are indeed more likely to be victims of violence. And contrary to popular stereotypes fed by the media it is exceptionally rare for Muslims to become “terrorists.”

What we do need is patient, serious and informed analysis: could the relationship between the Boston suspects be similar to those of the Columbine killers? What other factors are at at play? I don’t know, but I cannot rule anything out.

Just like President Obama, I do not know what drove the alleged Boston bombers. What I do know is that when the media and the government, egging each other on, rush to judgment, the possibility of alternative scenarios is ruled out and getting to the truth is harder.

If Boston was “terrorism” based on the little that is known, then we must be able to answer these questions: can only white or Christian males be sociopaths, or suffer from other mental illnesses that under certain conditions lead to violence?

Can only two white Colorado high school students act as a pair without “terrorist” motives? Can “Muslims” or ethnic Chechens, or Arabs never be subject to the same kind of conditions or analysis?

Surely the survivors and families of the Boston bombing deserve no less of an accounting of what happened than the victims of Columbine?

We cannot and should not rule out that evidence will emerge that the alleged Boston bombers had a political motive. But it hasn’t so far.

What we have seen is the usual rush to judgment that has left Muslims and many people of color once again fearing collective blame and the governmental and societal retribution that comes with it.

 

Written FOR

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And of course, the anti-Muslim backlash …

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So here we are, nearly 12 years after September 11 unleashed a new wave of anti-Muslim hate. 44 percent of Americans say they have an “unfavorable” view of Muslims, according to a recent poll–and that was before the Boston bombings. How little has changed.

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Boston Marathon bombings unleash a new wave of Islamophobia

by Alex Kane
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Sharia
An anti-Park 51 protester in New York City in September 2010
(Photo: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)
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It’s happening again: another collective freakout steeped in Islamophobia. The Boston Marathon bombings have unleashed the anti-Muslim sentiment that bubbles under the surface and always shines bright in times of national hysteria. The current wave of Islamophobia the country is perpetuating and experiencing–and it’s only the beginning–is the first since the Park 51 fracas in 2010.

The news that the main suspects in the bombing are Chechen Muslims will fuel the ugly hate that has intensified since September 11. But the hate was unleashed immediately after the attack, even before the public knew that Muslims were involved. How little is needed for the brash and bigoted side of this country to come out swinging against the “Muslim enemy” we have been been so trained to fear.

It’s very easy to see the most blatant manifestations of the ugly phenomenon of Islamophobia, which casts collective blame on all Muslims. The right-wing is always the place to start. But it’s also emanating from our mainstream institutions and figures, where it’s a little more difficult to identify the Islamophobia. It’s there, though. Powerful institutions and figures are focusing on Muslims and trying to justify even more animus and surveillance targeting the Muslim community in the United States.

Let’s begin with the easiest of places: the Islamophobic media. The New York Postled the charge on this front. In the immediate hours after the Boston attack, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid fingered a “Saudi national” who was injured in the blast as a suspect. It turns out he had nothing to do with the attack.

The other easy place to see anti-Muslim hate is, of course, the Islamophobic blogosphere. Pamela Geller went from freaking out about the Saudi to freaking out about two innocent people featured on the Post’s front page to freaking out about a missing university student to finally arriving at where everybody else is: freaking out about the Chechen suspects. What tied them all together was they all looked “Muslimy,” the term Wajahat Ali aptly used in Salon, and denotes how Muslims have become racialized in this country. There was also Steve Emerson, the faux terror “expert” welcomed by AIPAC with open arms, who opined about the “Saudi national” on television, as Ali Gharib documented.

And then there are the anti-Muslim hate crimes. ColorLines has chronicled some of them. They include: a white man punching a Palestinian woman who wears a hijab in Massachusetts; and Latino men beating up a Bangladeshi in the Bronx because he looked “Arab.”

But how easy anti-Muslim sentiment migrates over into the mainstream. Sure, this form of Islamophobia is not as blatant as Pam Geller’s. But it’s just as dangerous–if not more so, since more people imbibe what the mainstream tells them.

The mainstream media is busy speculating about whether Islam played a role in the decision to blow up the bombs at the Boston marathon. I heard one reporter ask the uncle of the suspects whether they were “radicalized” in a local mosque, apparently not knowing that the vast majority of mosques in the nation are nowhere near “radical.” This is the soft bigotry the mainstream is engaging in.

Another culprit that has bought into Islamophobia, and therefore legitimizing it, is law enforcement. Return back to the Saudi national story. As The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson writes, “he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in ‘a startling show of force,’ as his fellow-tenants described it to the Boston Herald, with a ‘phalanx’ of officers and agents and two K9 units.” Davidson goes on to ask: “Why the search, the interrogation, the dogs, the bomb squad, and the injured man’s name tweeted out, attached to the word ‘suspect’?” The question answers itself. He was Saudi. He was Arab. That’s enough for a lot of people, including law enforcement. It speaks volumes that the only injured person to have his home searched by law enforcement was the Saudi national.

Finally, let’s look at the man who runs the city that suffered the nation’s most catastrophic terrorist attack. Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to reassure New York City in the aftermath of the Boston attacks. But he ended up exploiting the attacks for his own political purposes. At a press conference on Tuesday, he crassly said: “The moment that we let our guard down, the moment we get complacent, the moment we allow special interests to shape our security strategies, is the moment that the terrorists are waiting for. As a country, we may not be able to thwart every attack. We saw that yesterday. But we must do everything we possibly can to try.”

“Security strategies.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Bloomberg is referring to the New York Police Department’s tactic of spying on Muslim communities with no regard as to whether people are innocent or guilty of any crime. Don’t get complacent: stop criticizing the NYPD, the mayor says. They’re doing their job, and their job is to map Muslim communities, eavesdrop on conversations and catalog innocent people in police documents related to terrorism. And those “special interests”? That’s a clear as day reference to the Muslims who are fighting back against the spy program and to the allies who have joined them in that fight.

What Bloomberg doesn’t acknowledge is that the police department itself has admitted in court that their surveillance program has not stopped a single act of terrorism. Not one. Which begs the question: how can the “security strategies” Bloomberg is defending help prevent the next Boston? They can’t. But Bloomberg wants to justify a program that is Islamophobic at its core.

So here we are, nearly 12 years after September 11 unleashed a new wave of anti-Muslim hate. 44 percent of Americans say they have an “unfavorable” view of Muslims, according to a recent poll–and that was before the Boston bombings. How little has changed. 

 

 

Written FOR

 

2 Comments

  1. April 21, 2013 at 20:40

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  2. April 22, 2013 at 11:06

    [...] Two related reports …. * Obama’s rush to judgment: Was the Boston bombing really a “terrorist” act? Ali Abunimah * * President Obama has repeatedly claimed that the Boston Marathon bombing was a…  [...]


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