The Boston bombing has become a Rorschach blot for the media, who have tied it to everything from immigration to welfare to national security. Bob talks to The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart about the media and the culture's desire to impose meaning on tragedy.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
Last week's bombings at the Boston Marathon were about alienation.
MAN: The narrative that’s taking shape around the Tsarnaev brothers is one of a couple of guys who were sort of alienated from their local mosque, who more or less self-radicalized and looked stuff up on the Internet.
BOB GARFIELD: No, that isn’t right. The murder of three innocents and the grievous injury to hundreds were an object lesson on immigration.
MAN: These are individuals that are coming from a part of the world that keeps feeding into this terrorist network. There is no right to come into the United States. It's something we allow people to do. There’s no right….
BOB GARFIELD: No, no, that’s wrong too. The latest incident of terrorism on US soil was all about lapses in security.
WOMAN: The FBI's handling of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 and his six-month trip to Russia the following year now face congressional scrutiny.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, as they say, a hammer thinks everything is a nail. The interpretations of last week's terrifying events, as aired across the media, depended entirely on the agenda of whoever was doing the interpreting. In our polarized polemicized political environment, scarcely an event takes place that isn’t claimed by various advocates as the smoking pressure cooker of their various dire years, but if some reactions to the bombing news were particular, one, in the nerve-racking hours before the suspects were identified, seemed universal. On everyone's mind was the question, what would be the identity of the culprits, not the names, the identity. What group would they belong to? Would they be Muslims? Would they be white? Would they be foreigners? Would they be Americans? And sure enough, when Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were finally named, the answer to those questions, in all cases, was yes. Peter Beinart wrote about the identity factor in the Daily Beast. Peter, welcome back to OTM.
PETER BEINART: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Why do you believe that the subtext of race was so prevalent?
PETER BEINART: Well, I think we have this binary kind of division in terms of thinking about these kinds of acts which, in the media, is basically Islamist Jihadist terrorist, on the one hand, or crazy white Americans, on the other. And as I was thinking about that kind of opposition, which kind of played itself out in a lot of different ways in the media, it occurred to me that there has been a way in which Islam has been racialized in the American conversation so that it’s the opposite of white. What turned out to be interesting about these guys, the Tsarnaev brothers, who come from the Caucuses, which is the place from which we derive the word “Caucasian” is that it just exposes that that makes – no sense.
BOB GARFIELD: How did the word “Muslim” come to be so – all-embracing as a dangerous other?
PETER BEINART: Well, I actually found the historical material really interesting, you know. Of course, for most of American history, the government had to figure out what race you were, even though race itself, of course, is a social concept. So the government had to decide what race you were because we were a society segregated along racial lines by law. And often, your ability to gain citizenship depended on whether you were classified as being white or not. And so, you see these series of cases in the first half of the 20th century where people from the Middle East are trying to prove that they’re white. And what you find is that the courts start suggesting that Christians from the Middle East have a better claim than do Muslims from the Middle East because they start to wrap the idea of Islam in with the idea of not being white in a series of cases starting from 1915 and continuing to 1942. And I think that’s the backdrop that was kind of, in some ways, activated after 9/11, this kind of history in the United States of, of seeing Muslim as something that defined you as not white.
BOB GARFIELD: It turns out that in answering the question you posed, you found a Rorschach test within a Rorschach test because various parties took a look at the Tsarnaev brothers and said, “Aha!”
PETER BEINART: Well, there was an interesting case study in this because this write at Salon, David Sirota, wrote a piece before we knew who had committed the attacks, saying, “I hope these are white Americans.” The argument was that there would be less of a crackdown on civil liberties if it was a Timothy McVeigh- style character than if it was a – you know, people like the 9/11 hijackers. And then, when it turned out to be the Tsarnaev brothers and we realized they were Muslim and that there might have been some connection to al Qaeda-like ideology, some people said, “Ah-ha, you see, David Sirota was wrong.” And that’s – what I found so fascinating about this, that there was actually this real life test which exposed the way, perhaps semi-consciously, people see white and Muslim as alternative.
BOB GARFIELD: We heard Marco Rubio looking at this as an immigration matter. David Remnick of the New Yorker just kind of assumed that the Tsarnaevs were acting out of reaction to the repression of Chechens. Fox News [LAUGHS] has made political hay out of the fact that the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was on welfare.
PETER BEINART: I think on the right there is a preexisting view that we remain in this war on terror with this external foe, and this fits into that. I think progressives are more interested to see this as an immigration story, and that makes it, in some ways, more of a story about us, about issues that have emerged inside the United States, with difficulties of adjusting to being American.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you know the story of the three blind men and the elephant?
PETER BEINART: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: And they each touch a different part of the elephant and then describe it all differently? Is that what's happening here?
PETER BEINART: Absolutely. There’s a recognition that the power to interpret this event in a certain way can be important for a whole range of different things, in the immigration debate, the gun control debate, American foreign policy. And so, people are trying to do that. It’s understandable but it’s also sad in many ways, because I think that, honestly, an event like this is, in many ways, also just very sui generis. To try to draw too many conclusions about what's right and wrong in American society or even the nature of the Jihadist terrorist threat from this one incident, I think is dangerous. You need many, many, many, many more data point, I think, to really be able to tell that story.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter, thank you very much.
PETER BEINART: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Beinart writes for The Daily Beast.