When tragedy strikes in our country, it has an uncanny ability to bring us all together in a moment where we tear down any politically or socially constructed divisions and grieve together as a nation. During that rare moment, we are all the same people, sharing the same pain. There is no Black, White, Hispanic, Gay, Straight, Conservative, or Liberal. There are only Americans… unless of course you are an Arab or Muslim or anything else that might “look it”.
When tragedy strikes in our country, the immediate reaction for most of us is to send our thoughts and prayers to those who are affected. We try to bear the burden with those directly affected so we may help our nation heal and move past it. For the rest of us however, we become immediately overwhelmed by a relentless anxiety brought on by the fear that whoever caused this tragedy might look like us, have a similar name as us, speak a similar language as us, eat the same foods as us, or pray in the same manner as us.
When tragedy strikes in our country, our immediate reaction is to pray to God in the name of all that is holy and heavenly that whoever did this unspeakable act does not bear even the slightest resemblance to us in any way.
“Please God do not let the guy be an Arab”
“Please God, just please do not let him be Muslim”
“Please, Please, PLEASE don’t let him look like me or my brother or my son”
We aren’t given the privilege of grieving with our fellow Americans; rather we must first grapple with the fact that we are automatic suspects by virtue of the B’s that our parents use in place of their P’s, or the ever-present trifecta of hummus, pita, and olive oil in our kitchens, or inability of our names to be properly transliterated into Latin script. Our first reaction is to become flooded with fear that some misguided soul might blame the tragedy on “our people” and attack us in retaliation. Our first reaction is come to terms with the fact that there is no reason for us not to be a suspect and be detained for no reason. Only after that, if the rest of the nation allows it, can we join in the grieving.
This horrific event in Boston was no different. As the whole nation got together to grieve, many Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs, Indians, Pakistanis, and anyone else who might fit into the carefully constructed stereotype of what a terrorist might look like first had to ready ourselves to become a place for America to rest its cross hairs upon. A process only made more frustrating by the initial reluctance to label the attack as an act of terror due to the lack of a suspect who might fit the bill. This of course is not anything to which we aren’t used. Yet, we who are all too familiar with the “random” search at the airport know that this discomfort, like the kind brought on by the touch of a TSA agent’s blue rubber gloves, is one to which we can never get accustomed. But it is important to understand where these expectations of what the terrorist will look like come from.
See, in America we are deliberately selective when throwing the “T” word around for any random attack on the public meant to instill fear or terror. There seems to be a set of guidelines that dictate the how this label of terrorism is used in the media and by politicians.
If we take a look at the past and compare two seemingly similar attacks that occurred with the purpose of spreading terror and taking lives. We can see just how different the two cases are and how they are perceived accordingly:
1) If we take the case of the Columbine High shootings in 1999, we can see that a pair of students at columbine high school carried out an attack that killed 13 people.
2) On the other hand, about a decade later in a Fort Hood, Texas military base, a member of the army carried out an attack that killed 13 people.
In the case of the Columbine shootings, we received a narrative of two mentally unstable kids pushed to the edge by constant bullying and ridicule; for all intents and purposes they were victims as well. In the case of the Fort Hood shooting we received the narrative of a deranged bloodthirsty terrorist, nothing more.
So we are left to wonder what made one shooter a terrorist and the others just your run-of-the-mill criminals. The difference is that one shooter was a Muslim, Palestinian Arab whose name was Nidal Malik Hassan while the others were white teenagers from American Suburbia named Dylan and Eric.
When it comes to the labeling a horrendous attack on civilians, our own government plays this game as well. The day after the attack, President Obama bravely declared that any time bombs are used to kill civilians, it is terrorism. But when we apply his own logic to his foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it doesn’t quite add up. In what is a rare case of true journalism these days, one reporter spoke truth to power by asking White House Press Secretary Jay Carney if the US Drone strike that left 11 Afghani children dead earlier this month constitutes terrorism. It seems a logical association if we use the Presidents own words. Of course the only difference is that the loss of life was caused by our government, in the name of national security making the drone operator who pulled trigger while tucked away safely in a Syracuse military base a national hero, destinction that didn’t give Mr. Carney the confidence not to dodge the question. So it really begs the question: of what a terrorist actually looks like?
The fact is there is no answer. You might ask anyone in, lets say, Ocala, Florida, what a terrorist looks like and they’ll probably give you the answer that fits in with the media’s masterful proliferation of the the bearded man with a head wrap and explosives strapped to his chest. But ask any child in Pakistan what a Terrorist might look like and he is likely to describe a middle-aged man with a charismatic smile, wearing a crisp blue suit, brandishing an eagle pinned to his lapel.
When we take a second to look back, we see that there have been a large number of terrorist attacks in this country over the past few decades. A closer look at these attacks shows us that the vast majority of these attacks were carried out by people with names such as McVeigh, Rudolph, Kaczynski, Mathews, Hughes, Crocker, Dillard, and many more that look like they might have been pulled out of a Nebraska phone book. But we forget these Terrorist attacks because we write off the terrorists as anomalous cases that are unrepresentative of the entirety of White America, people who were likely thoroughly unstable as far as sanity is concerned, unlike the Arabs and Muslims of course who are just naturally predisposed to violence.
These stereotypes are further placed in our collective mind when either the FBI or the NYPD fabricate a terror plot by pushing a young, unstable person who “fits the bill” to develop enough aggression to plot an attack on a public space. They then foil their manufactured terror plot just in time to save the day and justify the unending abuses to our civil liberties done in the name of maintaining our security.
It is all of this and more that has its hand in creating the environment that makes us guilty by enculturation when tragedy strikes. It is these practices used in the media that make it possible for a victim injured in the Boston Terrorist attack to be considered an instant suspect simply because he was running away (like everyone else who was in the vicinity of an explosion), but more so because he was Saudi Arabian and thus suspicious enough to be tackled as he ran (much like a young Black or Latino male walking down a street in Brooklyn is suspicious enough to warrant his eighth Stop-and-Frisk search in the span of 3 weeks). This carefully constructed imagery of terrorists, acts a barrier in allowing our country to truly unite in the face of tragedies such as that which occurred in Boston. It creates a second set of potential victims who could fall prey to bigoted attacks made in retaliation to terror attacks, and further opens the wounds we’ve already sustained. These preconceived notions of what a terrorist looks like should be put to rest so that when tragedy strikes in our country, we can all join together to support one another as a nation rather than having some of us have worry about becoming targets ourselves, or if any one of us happens to fall victim to an attack like this, we can receive the same condolences, thoughts, and prayers as the rest of the victims instead of suspicious looks and implications of guilt.
[Image by Vjeran Pavic via Flickr]