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The Media and the 'Dark-Skinned' Men from Chechnya | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

The Media and the 'Dark-Skinned' Men from Chechnya


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.”

An uncle of the two, Raslan Tsarni, surrounded by a mob of reporters outside his Maryland home, fervently denied any political motivations. “What I think was behind it: Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves,” Tsarni said. “These are the only reasons I can imagine of. Anything else, anything else to do with religion, with Islam, is a fake.”

If he’d suspected anything, he’d be first to turn them in, he added. They brought shame on the family and “shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity.”

One reporter asked a question that, I thought, brought embarrassment to his profession. Reminiscent of how the political establishment demands that Obama say the magic word “terrorist” or else lose patriotism points, the reporter asked Tsarni point blank: What do you think of America?

“I respect this country. I love this country,” he said. “This country, which gives chance to everybody else to be treated as a human being. That's what I feel about this country.”

Right after the marathon, the right tried to make it seem as if Muslims, preferably the Arab kind, had practically planned the attack on “Obamaphones.” When a Saudi man was mistakenly identified as a person of interest, Glenn Beck and some rightwing blogs spun a conspiracy story in which the U.S. swiftly deported the man because Obama wanted “to cover up Saudi Arabian and Al Qaeda ties to the attack.”  

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Then, the New York Post stooped to phone-hacking levels by publishing a cover photo of two young men, one of them a Moroccan-American high-school athlete, who were simply watching the marathon, under the headline “BAG MEN.”  

It was in hopes of avoiding just this sort of nativist vigilantism that Salon’s David Sirota wrote a piece titled Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.” It was still before we had any idea of who they were, when he added:

I hoped (though certainly never assumed) the Boston bomber ends up being a white non-Muslim American because in a country where white people are never collectively profiled, surveilled or targeted by law enforcement, that would best guarantee a measured — rather than a hysterical, civil-liberties-trampling — reaction to the atrocity. For this, I was lambasted by everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Bill O’Reilly to their thousands of followers for being “race obsessed” (O’Reilly, in fact, took a step into straight-up slander by subsequently claiming that I am hoping Americans kill other Americans in terrorist attacks).

I, too, hoped the bomber was a non-Muslim white American. Last night, after the shootout, a taped loop showed a young blond man lying on the street, with his arms splayed out, surrounded by police with drawn weapons. We don’t know who he was, and he may have been an innocent bystander. But for a moment, I actually hoped that the “white cap” guy in the FBI photos was wearing a dark wig and that underneath he was a blond “domestic terrorist” trying to frame Muslims.

Yesterday, after the FBI put out their photos but before we knew the suspects’ names or background, a lot of people didn’t know what to make of them: Were they white, Muslim, Italian, what? Erin Burnett sounded authentically perplexed, saying, “These two kids look like they’re very, very from here.” Most people figured them for college students, which in fact they were.

Now that they’ve been ID’ed, that relatively innocent moment is gone. We know they’re Chechen, and Chechen is not something we’ve processed racially. Or as The Onion put it: “Majority Of Americans Not Informed Enough To Stereotype Chechens.”

Unfortunately, in the end, what will matter most to our national political narrative is that they’re both Muslim and terrorists. “Islamic terrorists.” 

Read Richard Kim on the Boston bombing and the West, Texas explosion, and why we irrationally pay more attention to terrorist deaths.

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