I’m writing this two weeks after the spectacular bomb blast at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The first images we got of the end of the marathon — the cute Black teenage woman who won it kissing the cup at the finish line — already seem to belong to a dimly remembered history. They were eclipsed by what happened at that same finish line later that day. Two bombs made out of pressure cookers blew up and sent shrapnel ripping through the crowd, killing three people and injuring over 100. At least one victim had to have both his legs amputated, a cruel irony at an event meant to celebrate the triumph of athletes over the limitations of their own bodies.
For the next week we heard voices on the media trying to make sense of the incident when we didn’t know the two most important things about it: who did it, and why. We heard heart-rending stories about the victims, including the eight-year-old boy who’d been waiting at the finish line for his father to end the Marathon, and the 24-year-old woman who’d been waiting for her boyfriend to come in from the race. We heard a lot of speculation, some of it quite cruel, about who the attackers might be and what their motives could just possibly have been.
When two suspects were finally identified — 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar (pronounced “Johar”) — the police chased them, killed Tamerlan in a shootout and put virtually the entire city of Boston on lockdown. It’s indicative of just how much Americans have come to accept the “surveillance society” in the nearly 12 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks (far more extensive, well-planned and lethal than the one in Boston) that almost no one thought it was a big deal that millions of ordinary, innocent citizens were being told to imprison themselves in their homes while the police looked for one 19-year-old and staged their own attack on the civil liberties of millions of people, at an estimated cost of $250 to $333 million per day.
When the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as the prime suspects in the bombing, a lot of people on the radical Right no doubt breathed easier. The Tsarnaevs and their parents had moved here from Chechnya, a rebel province of Russia whose fighters had already committed some pretty heinous terrorist acts of their own, including an assault on a movie theatre in Moscow in October 2002 in which 900 people were held hostage and 130 of them ended up dead (along with 40 of the Chechen fighters). The coverage of that incident in the U.S. media was surprisingly sympathetic to the Chechens, largely because there was good evidence that the deaths actually resulted from the Russian army using chemical weapons in a counterattack on the theatre, but now that Chechen immigrants have staged a terror attack on U.S. soil a lot of Russian authorities are being quite free with their we-told-you-so’s.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Right is presenting the Boston attack as yet another example of the “existential threat” something called “radical Islam” poses to the U.S. They’re pointing to the Tsarnaevs’ — especially Tamerlan’s — apparent log-ins to Islamic Web sites, including an al-Qaeda-sponsored one called Inspire where he supposedly obtained the recipe for the Boston bombs. They’ve also noted a six-month trip Tamerlan Tsarnaev took to Russia in 2011, which may have simply been a visit to see relatives still in Russia or a stint at a so-called “training camp” (located where and sponsored by whom?) where he’s said to have learned to make bombs and carry out an attack. Actually, it’s still not clear whether the Tsarnaevs were committed mujahedin or free-lance wanna-bes who knew no more about how to commit terrorism than what they learned on the Internet, but propagandists on the radical Right who think President Obama is “soft on terrorism,” if not a closet Muslim himself, leaped at the chance to tie the bombing in to “radical Islam.”
Indeed, some of them were doing that even before the Tsarnaevs were identified as prime suspects. Early on during the manhunt, a man named Erik Rush, whose existence had previously been unknown to me but who’s a contributor to the World Net Daily Web site (www.wnd.com) and Fox News, sent out a tweet reading, “Everybody do the National Security Ankle Grabs! Let’s bring Saudis in without screening them! C’mon!,” after Boston police briefly identified a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian national as a potential suspect. (He was later cleared) When Rush started getting responses criticizing him for blaming the attacks on Muslims before police had made any arrests, he blasted back, “Yeah, that’s right, they’re evil. Kill ‘em all.”Rush later said he meant it as sarcasm, but in a column he published to World Net Daily April 17 (http://www.wnd.com/2013/04/dhimmis-on-parade-in-america/) he doubled down on his rage against not only Muslims but the American Left, whom he described essentially as a fifth column that’s allowing Islam to conquer the U.S. “I still maintain that Islam is, by its nature, wholly incompatible with Western society,” the man who calls himself “the other Rush” wrote. “I analogize liberalism, which is promoting this dhimmitude, to Stage 3 cancer in America’s body politic. For the record: While killing people is definitely undesirable, that is what war tends to be about.” Rush explained that the word “dhimmi” is Arabic for a conquered non-Muslim population living under Muslim rule. Its usual meaning is the special tax Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims were charged in medieval Muslim states to be allowed to live there — at a time when Christian rulers were routinely mass-murdering both Muslims and Jews in their countries.
Never mind that when the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and injured at least 680 (the most serious terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11), occurred on April 19, 1995, it too was immediately blamed on “Arab terrorists” not only by Right-wing hatemongers but many mainstream media commentators. For a while the only question in the media was which group of “Arab terrorists” had planted the bomb and blown up the Oklahoma City federal building. Then it turned out the culprits were considerably closer to home: a trio of misfit U.S. veterans inspired not by the Koran but William Luther Pierce’s 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, in which a group of white racists seize U.S. nuclear weapons and use them to win a worldwide race war and exterminate all “inferior” peoples.
Appearing on the April 26 episode of the TV show Moyers and Company, journalist and columnist Glenn Greenwald presented some statistics from impeccably mainstream establishment sources like the FBI and the Council on Foreign Relations that from 1980 to 2001, about two-thirds of all terror attacks in the U.S. were carried out by non-Muslim American extremists. What’s more, after 9/11 that percentage actually skyrocketed to 95 percent. A not-quite-so-establishment source, Mother Jones magazine, found that of the 62 mass killings in the U.S. — defined as the murder of four or more people in the same incident — 44 of the killers were white males.
But, as Greenwald argued, we as a society react very differently to a terrorist attack conducted by white Christians than one by Muslims. “Generally, when the person is a white Christian or a white American, there’s an attempt instantly to assure everybody that it’s simply kind of a one-off, that it doesn’t have a political content, that the person is mentally ill, that they’re a lone actor, that they just snap, is usually the jargon, to assure everybody that there’s no political conclusions that ought to be drawn,” Greenwald said. “When the person is Muslim, everything reverses. … There’s an assumption that this bolsters the idea that we face this grave and potentially even existential threat from radical Muslims against whom we’ve been fighting this decade-long war. And it really bolsters the premises of that war by ratcheting up the fear levels and by reaffirming the political convictions in which it’s grounded.”Thanks to our hysterical overreaction to 9/11, we’ve given the federal government sweeping powers to keep us under surveillance. We’ve trashed our own system of criminal justice and set up so-called “military commissions” to try terror suspects. We’ve sanctioned the use of torture to extract information from detainees, and we’ve abolished the law of habeas corpus and most of the “due process” that is supposed to be available in this country even to those who’ve committed the most heinous crimes. We’ve also meekly accepted much less freedom of movement; thanks to the “security” measures put in at airports after 9/11 (most of which wouldn’t have done jack to stop the actual attacks), air travel has become excruciatingly difficult, and many people (including my mother) who routinely flew places on vacation now don’t bother anymore.
The Boston Marathon attacks will no doubt serve as an excuse to broaden the surveillance state still further. I staffed a booth for Activist San Diego at the Earth Day celebration in Balboa Park April 21 — just across the road from a tall steel tower with cameras on it. It’s an indication of how even activists who criticize the government as frequently as we do have become used to the surveillance state that we didn’t realize what that contraption was until it was taken down at the end of the day. It was set up by the San Diego Police Department to give them a long-distance view in case anybody tried … well, something at an event known to draw 6,000 people per year. We’ve become a population that’s routinely spied on by its own government, and we’ve yielded to the siren song of all authoritarians: “If you’re not doing anything, you have nothing to worry about.”
Indeed, the assumption that we have to sacrifice constitutional freedoms to fight the “war on terror” has become so widespread that when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would be charged with federal crimes and tried in an ordinary civilian court, he seemed to be apologizing. In the face of criticism from people like Senator Lindsay Graham — who should have known what the statute authorizing military commissions to try the accused 9/11 plotters said because he co-wrote it — that Dzhokhar should be hauled in front of a military commission (and before that kept in custody in Guantánamo and waterboarded like Khalil Shaikh Muhammad?), Holder all but said he was sorry that thanks to the bothersome fact that Dzhokhar was a naturalized U.S. citizen, the law creating the military commissions forbade the government from trying him before one.The attacks in Boston are full of unintended and bizarre ironies. Not many people remember this, but the marathon began as a commemoration of an ancient struggle against imperialism. In 490 B.C. Greece was under attack from the greatest superpower of the day, the Persian Empire. The Athenian navy had just won a battle off the coast of the city of Marathon — a surprising triumph against the larger, more numerous and presumably better equipped Persian ships — and to tell the folks back home the good news the Athenians sent a slave boy named Phidippides to run the 26.2-mile distance between Marathon and Athens. He made it, croaked out his message — and then died of a heart attack from his exertions. So death at the finish line has been a part of the marathon from its very beginnings.
The ironies get even weirder. The older Tsarnaev brother was named after Tamerlane (Timur the Lame), a conqueror who was born in what is now Uzbekistan in 1336 and formed an army which attempted to restore the empire of Genghis Khan. He was captured by Mongols at age eight, along with most of his family, and turned into what would now be called a child soldier. As an adult, Tamerlane built up a powerful army and became a Muslim, forcing the people he conquered to convert or die. He spent 35 years leading his army in a succession of wars throughout Europe, Asia and what is now known as the Middle East, that historians believe led to the deaths of 5 percent of the world’s population.
And not many people remember this, either, but Boston was also where the 9/11 attacks started. The planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York were hijacked from Boston’s Logan Airport. They were scheduled to fly to West Coast destinations and were chosen by the 9/11 attackers for that reason. In order for the attacks to work, the planes had to be full of fuel so they would incinerate the buildings at which they were aimed.
The U.S. radical Right has benefited from the Boston attack for reasons other than the renewed focus on so-called “radical Islam” as the alleged fount of all anti-U.S. terrorism. The U.S. Senate defeat of a common-sense bill to require background checks for all gun purchases — a proposal supported by 90 percent of the American people, including (one would hope) most rational and responsible gun owners — happened while the Tsarnaevs were still at large. The Boston attacks seemed to be proving the National Rifle Association’s point that there are other ways to murder a lot of people at once besides guns. That became a little harder to argue once the fourth victim, MIT police officer Sean Collier, was — you guessed it — shot with a gun.
And because the Tsarnaevs were immigrants, the attacks could also derail hopes for a bipartisan effort on comprehensive immigration reform. Never mind that the Tsarnaevs came here as legal immigrants, political refugees from a breakaway province of Russia whose struggle the Right actively supported through most of the last decade thanks to their continuing bizarre idea that the biggest remaining chunk of the former Soviet Union still constitutes a major threat. Remember when Mitt Romney said during the 2012 Presidential campaign that Russia — not China, not North Korea, not “radical Islam” — was our biggest foreign policy problem? More rational observers shook their heads and wondered what decade Romney thought it was.
What the tragedy in Boston really means is how much the human race is still wedded to the notion it took with it when it exited the caves: that the world belongs to the strong, and the way to get what you want is to take it away from other people by force, and kill them if necessary. It’s a notion we like to think we’ve risen above as we’ve become “civilized” — even though all too often “civilization” is little more than the thin veneer of beneficence a handful of rich people at the top of a society use to extract the fruits of the labor of the many below them — yet it’s a notion that’s at the heart of too many of the stories we tell each other and the stories the giant entertainment companies tell us.
While researchers have never been able to establish a one-on-one link between viewing a particularly violent movie or playing an especially brutal video game and real-life murder and mayhem, it’s beyond credibility that the unending flood of violent entertainments with which we while away our spare time has nothing to do with the increasing number and lethality of real-life violent attacks. The National Rifle Association had a point when they argued that Hollywood bore some of the responsibility for the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut. They were saying that largely to get the gun manufacturers, whose contributions largely keep the NRA and its publications in business, off the hook, but exactly what do you expect when you make military-grade weapons available to just about anyone who wants and can afford them and you feed them a steady diet of mythology that exalts violence as a solution to one’s personal demons and social dissatisfactions?
Because the Boston attackers used bombs instead of guns, and because the prime suspects (especially the dead one) had a history of interest in and some involvement with radical Islam, there’s a tendency to classify the attack on the Boston Marathon as another 9/11. Perhaps the real parallels are with the mass shooting near Tucson in 2012 and the attacks in Aurora, Colorado (in a movie theatre that was showing a particularly brutal film, the Batman-series movie The Dark Knight Rises) and Newtown, Connecticut later — and all the other mass killings that have happened not only here but around the world, including the one in Norway whose perpetrator claimed a Right-wing political inspiration but likely as not was motivated by more personal demons.
Mass murder — whether it comes with the thin veneer of a political or religious ideology, or doesn’t try to disguise itself as anything but naked madness and hate — is ultimately about the revenge of the powerless. Screwed-up individuals or small groups nurse their hatreds of their enemies, real or imagined, and plan elaborate scenarios in which the people they’re targeting often have little or no rational connection to the sources of their grievances. In 1974, Hans J. Morgenthau published an article in The New Republic in which he called terrorism a “revolutionary tantrum,” the last resort of political revolutionaries who realized that the system was way too powerful for them to overthrow and all they could do was strike some sort of violent blow that, like a child’s temper tantrum, would tell the authorities, “I’m here! Don’t ignore me!”
When Morgenthau wrote that, he was thinking of the European terrorists of his time, groups like the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, as well as what was left of the Weather Underground in the U.S.: groups rooted in the Left, who not only maintained their political pretensions but expressed them in turgid, multi-page manifestoes that explained in excruciating detail how they rationalized their attacks. Today’s terrorists are more likely to be psychologically than politically or religiously motivated — though religious terrorism not only exists in the U.S., it’s been an unacknowledged part of a remarkably successful campaign to nullify American women’s right to reproductive choice — but there’s no reason to believe that the attack on the Boston marathon was anything more (or less) than the work of two screwed-up young men who expressed their own hatred and alienation through the fig leaf of some fragments of ideology they picked up on the Internet.
And the real tragedy of Boston — and of Newtown, Aurora, Tucson and Norway — is how easily these things happen. It’s in how our hyper-violent entertainments prime certain individuals to see violence as the solution to their personal issues, and also how absurdly easy it is for them to assemble the tools with which to commit mass murder: the arsenals of military-grade weapons and the ingredients for homemade bombs (and the on-line instructions for how to make them). Our world gives would-be mass killers access not only to the elaborate paraphernalia they need to do their dirty work, but a steady stream of encouragement that pours out from our movie and TV screens and teaches them that the bomb, the gun, the knife is the way to strike back at whatever or whoever you think “hurt” you.