Footage of Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the Boston Marathon. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)
Jake Tapper had been up all night covering the manhunt in Boston for CNN, so maybe that explains why he seemed to rush to judgment when he said of the bombing suspects: “It certainly seems these two are Islamic terrorists.”
“Yes, but those are two separate words,” Juliette Kayyem, a CNN contributor and former homeland security official, reminded Tapper. Technically, literally, he’s not inaccurate: The two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who died in a shootout with police last night, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who is apparently cornered by police as I post this, are Muslim and allegedly are terrorists. But all morning long, Kayyem had been cautioning viewers and fellow journalists not to jump to conclusions (as CNN’s John King so infamously did two days ago when he wrongly reported that a “dark-skinned male” had been arrested in connection with the bombing.) “The fact that they’re from Chechnya,” Kayyem said, “is not a motivation.”
The big question, of course, is what was the motivation. But even before the FBI made the Tsarnaevs’ photos public yesterday, and well before we knew their names or background (they’re from a region in Russia next to Chechnya, actually, and have lived in Boston about 10 years), we all have been trying to answer why by placing the two men somewhere on a racial, ethnic, religious, and ideological spectrum.
Media coverage is fraught with that tension: Were they “self-radicalized” and acting on their own or were they part of a larger network? Were they praying to Allah or praising Jesus? Was their nefariousness domestic- or international-based? (The word international keeps popping up superfluously: Fox & Friends’ Gretchen Carlson remarked that “they saw their photos on international television.” Well, unless they were watching CNN International, they saw themselves on good ol’ American TV, like Fox News.)
In other words, were they the kind of white Christian Americans that society has a hard time calling terrorists, or were they the kind of foreign-looking, “dark-skinned” suspects that we have a hard time not calling terrorists?
Much of the media today have been careful not to assign motivations, at least not yet. As Savannah Guthrie said, “There are facts that cut both ways.”
She, Kayyem, and other reporters, including a few on Fox, have laid out reasons that the two suspects might not be big-time Islamic terrorists: No one claimed responsibility for the carnage, as jihadist groups tend to; if they were part of a politically radical network, they probably wouldn’t have been so stupid as to rob a 7/11; high-school friends describe the younger brother as a normal teenager who partied, drank, and smoked.
The estimable Richard Engle of NBC allowed that while they could have been acting alone, there’s a good chance they’re connected to a militant group, specifically, he said, the Islamic Jihadist Union, which is “an Al Qaeda faction for all the non-Arabic speakers.”