Now that Dzhohar Tsarnaev has been captured, the long process of unraveling the mystery of the Boston Marathon bombing begins. Investigators, the press, and ordinary citizens will ask: Who were these young men? Why did they do what they did? What set them on this path? These are extremely difficult questions that give unclear, complex answers. And they are rendered even more difficult by the press’s general indifference to Caucasus and Central Asia and the public’s lack of knowledge of this region.
The media’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing has, generally, been poor. On April 17, CNN reported that a suspect had been arrested, when, in fact, no such thing had happened. Later, social media sites named the bombers as a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, and Mike Mulugeta, who may not actually exist. This misinformation was even picked up by some members of the press. Once the names of the real suspects had been established, CNN at one point reported a tweet posted by Dzhohar Tsarnaev in August 2012 as breaking news. The tweet read “boston marathon isn’t a good place to smoke tho.” Watching CNN last night, I was amazed to hear a journalist read this “breaking news” on camera and then dramatically announce, “It may mean something. It may mean nothing. We don’t know.” These are only a few examples of flawed coverage.
I’m not surprised that the press turned to the alleged bombers’ social media profiles to gather information on them. Social media offers a look into how a person chooses to represent himself online. It can tell us a lot about a person, or it can tell us very little. It all depends on the account, the amount of information, and that information’s veracity. In situations like this, it can be a good source of information if used properly. Unfortunately, in my opinion, much of the press treated these sites as what media expert Sarah Kendzior aptly called a “window into the soul,” which is wishful thinking at best. They looked for the signs of Islamic radicalism and indications of the brothers’ plan to bomb the Boston Marathon, and, naturally, they found what they were looking for. Some of the information was correct, of course. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, for example, did post or like several videos connected with fundamentalist Islamic thought and Chechen nationalism. But not everything they found fit the narrative the media was spinning.
In attempting to place Tamerlan and Dzhohar Tsarnaev into the mould of the stereotypical “Islamic fundamentalist bomber,” the media used several facts and claims about the brothers that, in my opinion, don’t ring true or were taken out of the Chechen and post-Soviet context and, thus, were misunderstood. I would like to draw attention to several such facts (certainly not all) and clarify them. While these details may seem small, they helped to form an image of the Tsarnaev brothers in the public’s mind, simplifying complex motivations that may exist behind this attack. Words have connotations beyond their direct meanings, and so the choice of something as small as the wrong word can change how we perceive the facts:
1. Dzhohar Tsarnaev’s Worldview
Many news outlets reported that Dzhohar Tsarnaev listed his worldview as Islam on VK.com, a Russian copy of Facebook. However, the only thing this tells us is that Dzhohar considers himself a Muslim, like the vast majority of Chechens. Worldview (or mirovozrenie in Russian) is simply how VK.com refers to religion. Although one can, in theory, write anything in this box, the site makes several suggestions: Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Secular Humanism. For this reason, in the context of VK, listing one’s worldview as Islam means nothing more than saying “I am a Muslim.”
2. “Who Wants to Be a Militiaman”
An article on the Mother Jones site examined Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Youtube page and noted that he had liked a video called “Who Wants to Be A Militiaman.” This was initially interpreted as an Islamist video. In fact, the video contains a satirical song in Russian and a series of photos depicting the exploits of the militia, the Soviet and Russian police force (called “police” instead of “militia” since 2011). The “militia” is widely known for its corruption and often mocked in Russian popular culture. The Mother Jones article was later corrected to reflect this fact.
3. 9/11 Conspiracies
In an article recently published on the CNN website, Allysa Lindley Kilzer, a young woman who got facials from the Tsarnaev brothers’ mother, spoke about her impressions of this woman. Kilzer says she initially went to see Zubeidat Tsarnaev at a local spa, but then began coming to the Tsarnaev family’s home for facials after Zubeidat was fired from the spa. However, she began to feel uncomfortable when Zubeidat started “quoting conspiracy theories, telling me that she thought 9-11 was purposefully created by the American government to make America hate Muslims.” This is represented in the article as a sign of Zubeidat’s “growing religious fervor.”
That’s quite a stretch, in my opinion. Having spent almost a year of my life in St. Petersburg, Russia and time in Kyrgyzstan, I can say that I’ve heard such conspiracy theories many times from many people. It’s always a surprise to me, but I think it reflects a general distrust of government and its institutions in Russia and many countries of the former Soviet Union. Obviously, Caucasian culture is very different from St. Petersburg Russian culture. But Chechens also have many reasons to distrust governments. Ultimately, as incorrect as Zubeidat Tsarnaev’s belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories may be, it has no direct link with Islamic radicalism or “religious fervor.”
4. Tsarnaev Brothers’ Mother and Father Claim a Setup
One of the most shocking aspects of this story was how the Tsarnaev Brothers’ mother and father claimed that their sons had been set up, possibly by the FBI, and their aunt suggested there was no proof of their involvement in the bombing. To the average American news viewer, this sounds extremely phony. It sounds as if the parents refuse to believe their children could commit such an act or are trying to protect their own reputations. This is all possible.
However, I would like to at least attempt to deepen our understanding of this reaction. While the background of the family is still somewhat murky, we know that they lived in Makhachkala, Dagestan (a republic neighboring Chechnya) at one point and that the father and mother currently live there. Dagestan is regarded as one of the most dangerous places in Europe, a region where bombings have become a regular part of life. After two separatist wars in the 1990s, neighboring Chechnya has grown more stable, but at a cost. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a Moscow loyalist who has essentially been given carte blanche by Putin, rules the republic as what Michael Idov called a “near-Sharia fiefdom.” Human rights violations—kidnapping, torture, attacks on journalists, etc.—are rampant both in Chechnya and Dagestan. This is a region where people accused of supporting the rebels often disappear, even if the accusations aren’t true.
Additionally, the Chechen population has a long and painful history of persecution. In February 1944, during World War II, Joseph Stalin deported the entire ethnic Chechen and Ingush populations to Central Asia for alleged cooperation with Nazi Germany (a highly unlikely allegation). Many people were killed or died during the journey in un-insulated cattle cars, and the Chechens and Ingush were only allowed to return to their homeland in 1957 during the Khrushchev Thaw. The Tsarnaev family members have alluded to this deportation a few times in interviews with the press.
I am obviously not trying to lend support to the idea that Tamerlan and Dzhohar Tsarnaev were set up by the FBI. But I think it is important to recognize why such an idea, in the context of the modern history of the Caucasus, could seem believable to the family, something that is lost on most journalists covering the Boston Marathon Bombing and on most viewers.
My point in highlighting these mistakes and de-contextualized facts in the media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing is to emphasize that much information has been misunderstood due to lack of knowledge about the Caucasus or Russia and a desire to present the suspects in a framework easily understandable to the American public. Thus, the media suggests that listing one’s worldview as “Islam” on a social media site is a sign of a radical Muslim and the belief in 9/11 conspiracies is synonymous with religious fervor. In such a mindset, “militiaman” automatically becomes “Islamic militiaman,” Chechen ethnicity automatically points to Chechen separatist and terrorist groups, and an unwillingness to believe one’s sons committed this terror act is interpreted as ingratitude to the United States (as Rep. Peter King suggested on CNN).
If there is one lesson the US should take from the Boston Marathon bombing, it is not simply that we are never safe from terror. We should also take this opportunity to reconsider how we understand terrorism. The case of Dzhohar Tsarnaev, a young man described by all his friends, teachers, and acquaintances as kind and thoughtful, emphasizes how thin the line between terrorist and ordinary person can be. His brother’s story shows us how contradictory the background of a terrorist may be: a Chechen refugee with dreams of boxing for the US Olympic team and receiving citizenship, who married an American woman, may have carried a grudge against Russia, loved the raunchy film Borat, and was also an extremely conservative and religious Muslim.
What caused these two young men to do what they did? What happened in their lives that set them on this course? We may never know the full answer, but the question should still direct our attention to the complexity of this issue. It should emphasize the need to better understand the psychology behind terrorism, the things that can motivate a person to commit such an act.
A friend on Facebook referred to this attack as “typical death-to-America terrorism.” I’m not sure that’s entirely true. It could be “death-to-the-infidels” terrorism. It could also just be “death-to-people” terrorism. Again, we may never get a complete picture of the intent and motivation of the bombers. But I think there is something different about this bombing, something that separates it from other terrorist attacks and attempted attacks. Certainly the fact the terrorists lived in America, one even grew up in the US and was a citizen, and that they may not have had any significant connections with jihadist organizations deserves attention.
But we will never even begin to answer the important questions surrounding this bombing and to see the subtleties of this story if our media tries to fit each terrorist into an easily understandable, two-dimensional framework. The Tsarnaev brothers are neither representative of the entire Chechen ethnic group, nor are they the embodiment of the mysterious Islamist-Jihadist “Other” that the US has been struggling with in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world for over a decade. They are individuals who did horrible things.
Our media and our society must perceive the subtleties of the Boston Marathon bombing. Otherwise, we will miss the lessons of this attack.
Image from RFE/RL