It is not surprising that the Boston Marathon bombing was treated as an event of enormous significance. Beyond the dramatic manhunt, the story had obvious political dimensions. The two explosions were labeled terrorist attacks almost from the start, and the tragedy jump-started media rhetoric about the supposed gaps in law enforcement surveillance, the persistence of “Muslim rage” and the return of terrorism within the United States.
“A five-day battle in the war on terror,” was how Scott Pelley described the ordeal on 60 Minutes (4/21/13). “TERROR RETURNS” was the banner headline of USA Today (Fair Blog, 4/16/13) the day after the bombings, with another front-page headline that read, “That Post-9/11 Quiet? It’s Over.”
Coverage and commentary of this sort underscores the fact that terrorism has no consistent definition in media, and that some acts that could be called terrorism either escape the label or vanish down the memory hole. The snipers in the Washington, D.C., area killed 10 people about a year after the 9/11 attacks. A shooter at a Tennessee Unitarian church killed two people, part of a plan to murder liberals. A man crashed a plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, in 2010. Six were massacred at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in August 2012.
But for whatever reason, these attacks—and others like them, many unsuccessful—failed to meet the media’s standard for terrorism. (The New York Times seemed to understand the problem with this line of thinking; a Web headline, “Bombings End Decade Without Terror in U.S.,” was eventually changed to “Bombings End Decade of Strikingly Few Successful Terrorist Attacks in U.S.”) (4/17/13).
If one accepts the conventional definition of terrorism—violence against civilians intended to send a political message—then it was not clear at the outset that the Boston bombings were terrorist attacks. And for some commentators, the categorization and thus the importance of the story seemed to depend on knowing more about the suspects’ nationality and/or religion. “If this is an international terror attack, the repercussions will be severe,” warned Fox host Bill O’Reilly (4/16/13). “And if it’s homegrown, that will be another stain on American history.”
The comment is instructive, reflecting a sentiment that exists beyond O’Reilly: An attack connected to foreign interests would be much more significant than domestic terrorism. Indeed, when the FBI released photos of the suspects—both listed as “white”—MSNBC host Chris Matthews (4/18/13) wondered:
To be blunt, and not to be [getting] into political profiling or racial profiling, but when you look at a picture that we’re looking at now, are there people that can look at that picture, study it and decide whether a fellow like that is from Yemen or other parts like that? Can they figure it out by looking at a picture?
A vivid example of racializing the bombers could be seen on the cover of the Week magazine (5/3/13), which featured a cartoon drawing of the Tsarnaev brothers, identified by police as the perpetrators, darkened to appear something other than the Caucasians that they were (Brofiling, 4/30/13).
While literally transforming the suspects into non-whites was exceptional, the assumption was ubiquitous that their religious background trumped their whiteness, if you will, and guaranteed that their violence would be treated as terrorism. Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald (4/22/13) put it succinctly: “As usual, what terrorism really means in American discourse—its operational meaning—is: violence by Muslims against Americans and their allies.”
In that vein, the Boston bombings came to be understood as a return of 9/11—not in the scope of the attacks or the cost in innocent lives, but as a reminder of a certain type of danger. “With the death of Osama bin Laden, Islamic rage did not go away. In fact, in some ways it’s more dangerous,” explained veteran NBC anchor Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press (4/21/13). Referring to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brother who survived a shootout with police, he said: “He’s a Chechen, but their beef is with Russia, not with us. But he’s also a Muslim. And the fact is that that Islamic rage is still out there.”
On CBS’s Face the Nation (4/28/13), host Bob Schieffer explained:
You know, once Osama bin Laden was killed, we had people around here saying that the war on terrorism is over, the threat is over. I guess we found out in Boston that that’s not entirely true. It does seem to be a different kind of terrorism that we’re up against right now.
Fox’s anchor Bill O’Reilly (4/25/13) declared, “The overwhelming evidence is that these two brothers killed four Americans and hurt more than 200 others in the name of Allah, period.”
It’s not clear what O’Reilly meant by “overwhelming evidence”; what the surviving Tsarnaev brother reportedly told investigators was that the two were actually motivated by “the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Washington Post, 4/23/13). Speculating about Islam’s purported connection to the bombings was obviously much easier than wrestling with the fact that the suspect, like several others linked to terror incidents (Guardian, 4/24/13), allegedly claimed to be responding to U.S. warfare.
Brokaw on Meet the Press was one of the few prominent pundits to discuss this background:
We have got to look at the roots of all of this because it exists across the whole subcontinent, and the Islamic world around the world. And I think we also have to examine the use of drones.... There are a lot of civilians who are innocently killed in a drone attack in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And I can tell you, having spent a lot of time over there, young people will come up to me on the streets and say: “We love America. If you harm one hair on the head of my sister, I will fight you forever.” And there is this enormous rage against what they see in that part of the world as a presumptuousness of the United States.
Coincidentally, the coverage of the Boston aftermath coincided with a Senate hearing on the U.S. drone program (Democracy Now!, 4/25/13), where lawmakers heard from Farea al-Muslimi, a young Yemeni activist who spoke movingly of the effect that a drone strike had on his village: “What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve [in my village], one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America.” Those comments were scarcely covered in the corporate media.
More often, the idea that there could be a connection between military violence in Iraq or Afghanistan and attacks on civilians in the United States was rejected, most vociferously by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (4/28/13), who called it a “popular meme among radical Muslim groups.” He went on:
It is amazing to me how we’ve come to accept this non sequitur and how easily we’ve allowed radical Muslim groups and their apologists to get away with it.... Dzhokhar claims the Tsarnaev brothers were so upset by something America did in a third country that they just had to go to Boylston Street and blow up people who had nothing to do with it (some of whom could have been Muslims), and too often we just nod our heads rather than asking: What kind of sick madness is this?
“What is going on in your community,” the Times pundit demanded of Muslims, that would permit this sort of violence? This is especially rich coming from the same person who enthusiastically supported the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; in the case of the latter, during an interview on Charlie Rose (5/30/03), he specifically defended it as vengeance for the 9/11 attacks and a way to strike back against the “terrorist bubble” in the Muslim world:
What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.”
That, Charlie, is what this war is about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia; it was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.
The views of an elite columnist like Friedman overlap considerably with the downmarket right-wing pseudo-populism of Fox’s O’Reilly, who was trafficking in ugly Islamophobia (4/23/13):
It’s clear the two Boston bombers were jihadists. They believed they have a right to kill children to serve their religion. Who else does that? What other theology in this world justifies murdering innocent people? The answer is? Only radical Islam allows terror murder. That’s the truth.
O’Reilly went to complain that “most Muslims on this Earth are good people, but they are not helping to neutralize the jihad. They are not standing up against it in any numbers. And that includes American Muslims; they largely remain silent.”
So they’re good people who do little to criticize terrorism, according to O’Reilly. According to Gallup polling (8/2/11), Muslim Americans are the religious group least likely to believe that “for an individual person or a small group of persons to target and kill civilians is sometimes justified”; just 11 percent agreed, versus 22 percent of Jewish Americans, 23 percent of nonbelievers, 26 percent of Protestants and 27 percent of Catholics. (Muslims were also much less likely to believe that military attacks on civilians were sometimes justified.)
O’Reilly would also insist, without any evidence, that there was likely more to this plot: “Some left-wing media already touting the lone-wolf theory that the two young terror bombers acted alone; nobody helped them kill four Americans and injure more than 200 others in Boston last week.” Of course, that wasn’t a left-wing media conspiracy—it was what law enforcement officials were saying from the very early stages of their investigation (LA Times, 4/23/13).
But O’Reilly wasn’t alone in denying that the Tsarnaevs could have acted alone; two different guests on CNN’s Lead (4/29/13) declared that there must have been a conspiracy.
Attempts to cause mass slaughter are not extremely rare in the United States—USA Today (12/19/12) counted 774 people killed in 156 incidents between 2006 and 2010, or one mass slaying every two weeks —and in most cases most people have no trouble believing that the perpetrators could have acted alone, whether politically motivated or not. But the Boston Marathon bombings were put in the category of “Islamic terrorism”—which somehow meant that the regular rules of evidence no longer apply.