Boston 4/15 and the selective American notion of who is a “terrorist”

Joan Walsh argues that the perps of last week’s attack at the Boston Marathon must be thought of more like domestic mass-murders than “terrorists” with foreign ties:

We still know comparatively little about the Tsarnaev brothers, but they seem to have more in common with other American mass murderers than with al-Qaida terrorists of any race and ethnicity. No less an expert than former CIA Deputy Director Phillip Mudd said on Fox News Sunday that they have more in common with the Columbine killers than with hardened al-Qaida terrorists. Likewise, Columbine expert Dave Cullen compares the “dyad” of apparent mastermind Tamarlan and follower-younger brother Dzhokhar to the Columbine pair of disturbed plot architect Eric Harris and follower Dylan Klebold.

It also must be noted, while we’re on the subject of profiling, that this is a problem of American males roughly between the ages of 18 and 26: Harris and Klebold were 18; Virginia Tech mass-murderer Seung-Hui Cho was 23; more recently, the Aurora, Colo., theater shooter, James Holmes, is 25; Clackamas, Ore., mall shooter Jason Tyler Roberts is 22; Newtown’s Adam Lanza was 20. We may well learn that radical Islam drew the alienated 26-year-old Tamarlan Tsarnaev toward violence – right now we have no evidence that 19-year-old Dzhokhar had any connection to Islamic militants — but we should also acknowledge his alienation is a common trait among American men his age.

Our confusion about whether the Tsarnaevs are “white,” and the right wing’s determination to say they aren’t, just underscores the eternally silly project of racial categorization anyway.  Race is a social construct, mainly used to establish invidious hierarchies and scapegoats. Despite the persistence of racism and white advantage, these lines are beginning to blur in our increasingly mixed, multiracial society – but right-wingers are going to police these lines as long as they can.

This is what struck me last Friday as I followed the news from home about Boston in lockdown:  once again, we have young, white men in the U.S.A. who feel entitled to enact their rage randomly and murderously on an unsuspecting public.  Does anyone know yet how and where these guys got the guns they used to kill an MIT campus police officer and to injure others while on the lam?  Is anyone talking yet about the fact that the elder brother had a record of domestic violence against his girlfriend/wife?  Would the background check law shot down by the U.S. Senate last week possibly have prevented him from getting his hands on firearms?  Why aren’t these questions being asked?  Instead, people are debating whether or not the suspects in Boston are “white,” and few question the application of the noun “terrorist” to them because they are Muslims.

I guess violent masculinity and the daily terrorism some women suffer by it just ain’t newsworthy.  But it’s still terrorism.  Violent misogyny and/or alienation from women seems to be a shared data point among all of the mass-murderers listed above by Walsh.  (Be sure to also read Chauncey DeVega on whiteness, terrorism, and who gets called a “terrorist.”)

21 thoughts on “Boston 4/15 and the selective American notion of who is a “terrorist”

  1. Thank you for highlighting this! It is disgusting how eager Republicans like Lindsey Graham are to pile on with “enemy combatant” charges when we still really don’t know the first thing about what motivated these two. Anything to distract from the young male problem!

    I’ve been lecturing on problems in the Caucasus for 20 years. Here are bits of a short piece I wrote up for my college on who the Chechens are. I can give you the whole thing if you think it would be helpful.

    “Chechens are a mountain people of the North Caucasus, one of dozens of small groups living in the high valleys. Their language belongs to the Northeast Caucasian family, which is isolated from other major language families such as the Indo-European or Altaic. Chechens are Muslim.

    From 1942 to 1944 the North Caucasus was under Nazi German occupation. As the Soviets re-took the region in 1944, Stalin accused the North Caucasian peoples of collaborating as nations with the Germans. Even before the war ended the Soviet secret police diverted hundreds of freight trains to load every Chechen, Ingush, Kabardino-Balkar, etc. that they could capture. They deported entire peoples to the Central Asian steppes (mostly Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). A secret police document from March 1944 noted: “The increased loading density [on the cattle train cars] was entirely feasible given that children accounted for 40‒50 percent of the special contingent.”

    Phase II of the Russo-Chechen war began in September 1999 with three separate bombings of apartment complexes in several Russian cities that killed almost 300 people. The Russian government blamed Chechen guerillas and re-invaded the North Caucasus. Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that the Russian secret police itself was responsible. This phase was if anything worse than Phase I. As Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya described it, “A Small Corner of Hell” (University of Chicago Press, 2007; Politkovskaya was murdered for her reporting in 2006, most likely by Russian higher-ups). In recent years Chechnya has been kept quiet for Russia by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who rules by corruption, torture, and murder. Chechens and other North Caucasians have carried out revenge bombings in Russia over the last ten years, killing dozens. Violence in the N. Caucasus itself has never really ended.”


  2. I’ve also been following the debate on other blogs about the contrast between Boston and West, Texas, and the eagerness to exact vengeance against the Boston terrorists, as opposed to the willingness to give Donald Adair a total pass.

    Donald Adair, the owner of the West, Texas fertilizer plant, knowingly and willingly kept massive amounts of explosive chemicals in the middle of a town — right next to two schools, a nursing home, and a residential district; his plant had never been inspected, despite regulations saying it had to be; and he flouted safety regulations. Yet no one is calling for him to be treated like a terrorist. No one is acting like he is a vile criminal. This, though he has done far more damage than the Boston men did.

    Why is that?


  3. Most unusual for me, Northern Barbarian, I found myself in agreement with Ramzan Kadyrov last week when he suggested that the Boston suspects were all American, not Chechen.

    Thanks for this background on the Russo-Chechen wars.


  4. Check, check, check, on all counts. Meanwhile, the rest of the supposedly actual media is going all-emo, all the time, with the makeshift memorials, the win-this-for-Boston, the teary piety, the B-strong b.s. The actual analysis has of necessity fled to the blogosphere. Graham and those guys are clowns. The only even small funny part about all of this is to see the membership of the GOP cabal lining up at Congressional microphones to criticize the government for not working more closely with the Putin regime to head off this kind of stuff. Then we can enlist the drug cartels to outsource border control and put a gun in the hands of every marathon volunteer marshal and call this a win on every front.


  5. And delagar: good question. Why was this dude permitted to be so irresponsible & not held accountable by local politicians? Texas seems like it has the regulatory environment of most of China, which is to say, NOT MUCH!


  6. Word. All the way around. I feel like punching in the head every last media jackass who actually devotes even a second of airtime to pondering whether or not Chechens are white. The apparent thirst for revenge, as opposed to justice, is absolutely sickening to me as well. Screw Miranda rights! Screw due process! Screw ACTING LIKE AMERICANS!

    There are awful resonances for me in people’s whining that we don’t collaborate enough with Vladimir “Call me Tsar” Putin, and the fact that our media and governmental representatives have actually given Ramzan “Warlord of the Year” Kadyrov an opportunity to condescend to us about our xenophobia.

    The whole thing feels like we’ve been transported into an Onion article.


  7. That’s a beauty: a competition for racial definition. Actually, it’s not very new. How do you tell a Palestinian man from an Israeli man in the summer in Jerusalem? Answer: Israelis men wear shorts. Ask a European: Arabs are dark Jews are white. Ask European about Europe: we are white, Jews are not.

    Chechens? Black, white and brown. Almost the German flag.


  8. Northern Barbarian’s post has a lot of inaccuracies regarding modern North Caucasian history and I am shocked that he claims to have been teaching about the Caucasus for 20 years. First, The Nazis only occupied part of the North Caucasus. They never occupied Chechnya proper. They made it to the western most Ingush inhabited regions of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. They did not deport all North Caucasians. They deported four indigenous nationalities from the region in their entirety. These were first the Karachais on 2 November 1943, then the Chechens and Ingush on 23-29 February 1944, and finally the Balkars on 8 March 1944. There are no such people as the Karbadino-Balkars. There was a Karbadino-Balkar ASSR, but the Karbards are a Circassian people related to the Cherkess while the Balkars are Turkic and closely related to the Karachais. Linguistically and otherwise the Turkic Karachai-Balkar peoples are very different from the Cherkess-Karbardian people who are closely related to the Adyghe. There were some Karabardians accused of being Nazi collaborators or bandits and deported, but the vast majority were not deported. Indeed all of the Circassian groups in the Northwest Caucasus avoided total deportation. The Turkic Karachais and Balkars in the North West Caucasus the Vainakh Chechens and Ingush in the North East Caucasus that were the four groups deported wholesale from the North Caucasus in 1943-1944.


  9. It should be clear that the Soviet NKVD that committed the deportation of the Karachais, Chechens, Ingush, and Balkars. Also the Soviets reentered the North Caucasus starting in 1943 not 1944 as Northern Barbarian falsely claims.


  10. Okay my correction came out a bit wrong. I should have said “The Soviets did not deport all North Caucasians.” Obviously the Nazis did not do it since they never occupied Chechnya. There should be an edit button here.


  11. Fascinating to hear some of the history.

    I burst out laughing to learn that the right is trying to label these guys “non-white.” Professionally, I’m a systematist and evolutionary biologist. I study plants, not people, but the techniques to decide what constitutes species, variety, form, etc., are similar. And, by any method, the Chechens are Caucasians. Ur-whites, you could say. The bros are probably “whiter” “whites” than the rightists claiming they’re “non-white.” That strikes me as hilarious.

    You’d never actually know where they fit on the spectrum without DNA testing.


  12. I am also enjoying the debate over tighter immigration restrictions. “We need to stop letting these people into our country!” The younger Tsarnaev was * 9 * years old when he entered the US. His brother was a teenager. Would tighter screening really have kept them back in the Caucasus?


  13. Smalltownprof:

    They came to the US from Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia not the Caucasus. Dzhokar was in fact born in Kyrgyzstan and Tamerlane was born in Daghestan. So the answer is obviously no.


  14. So there is the other brother, but I wonder if we will ever get the younger brothers perspectives on America where/are.? Perhaps he is a lot more “American” than we think, i.e “The Weathermen”?


  15. Yes, J. Otto. Ethnic Russian racism is legendary, which is ironic considering that the main distinction between Russians and Byelorussians is that the former have a much larger number of Mongolian genes. The fact that ethnic Russians noticed that Caucasians (which includes Iranians, of course) get deeper tans than they do doesn’t change the irony of the situation I was talking about.


  16. quixote:

    First, according to the people who control the field of Soviet nationality studies, people like Francine Hirsch at University of Wisconsin and Amir Weiner at Stanford there were never any “racial politics” in the USSR. I think their argument is wrong, but the orthodox position by US academics is that official racism did not ever exist in the USSR. Their entire argument is that racism only exists if racial categories are constructed along purely biological lines identical to what existed under Nazi Germany. Again this is stupid, but it is very, very difficult to get an article published arguing that racism existed in the USSR and that it was constructed along lines of cultural essentialism. It took me a couple of years and lots of rejections to finally get one through the peer review process which is controlled by people like Hirsch. The official party line as set by Hirsch is that Stalin never engaged in racial discrimination or genocide.

    Second, the main difference between Russians and Belorussians is the fact that the Belorussians were under Lithuanian and Polish (The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) rule for a considerable length of time. Hence there is a considerable amount of Polish influence on the Belorussians. The existence of Catholic minority for instance. The differences are not that great, but the Polish influence on Belorussians is more important than the Mongol influence on Russians.

    Third, there are Caucasian people like the Ossetians that speak languages that are related to Persian. But, I would not call them Iranians any more than I would call Karachais or Balkars Turks. Americans are not English either even though we speak a similar language.

    Finally, if race is a constructed category then it stand to reason it can be constructed along a variety of lines. Although as mentioned about the people who control Soviet historical studies reject that race is a category that can be constructed along cultural or ethnic lines. But, less dogmatic people recognize that the racial formation of Caucasians as Black is not ironic at all.


  17. Thanks, Perpetua–I hadn’t seen that. It’s pretty obvious that men are overwhelmingly the perps of mass violence, but like many things regarding men and masculinity, the connection is naturalized & therefore rendered invisible.


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