By Khaled Diab
Tuesday 30 April 2013
The tragic and bloody conclusion of this year’s Boston marathon, and the subsequent dramatic manhunt to capture the suspected perpetrators, has had America and much of the world transfixed.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, which left three dead and over 180 injured, I was relieved that the American media, with the exception of serial offenders like The New York Post, were reluctant to point fingers and took a largely wait-and-see approach.
They had apparently drawn some valuable lessons from the shameful Anders Breivik debacle, when early media reporting and idle “expert” speculation identified, without a shred of evidence, the worst massacre in Norwegian history as the work of Islamic extremists.
Once it was revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers, two ethnic Chechen-Dagestanis who have lived in the United States for the past decade, were the alleged suspects behind the attack, the keeps holding back the tidal wave of speculation broke.
The coverage has so far focused on connecting Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnev to radical Islamists, particularly Chechen groups, but no solid connections have yet been uncovered and plenty of contradictory evidence has been unearthed.
The semantics of the media lexicon has been interesting to observe. Even the sombre and authoritative voice of The New Yorker, whose coverage of the Boston tragedy has largely been nuanced and sophisticated, described the bombing as “the most serious terror attack in America since September 11th ”.
If that were the case, then the Boston attack should be a cause for relief rather than panic, since, though every death is a tragedy, the death toll is a thousandth of that of the 9/11 atrocities.
But the United States has actually been the target of numerous “terrorist” attacks since 11 September 2001 that would make the carnage at the Boston marathon pale in comparison. One of the worst recent examples was the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton which left 28 people dead, of which 20 were children.
When I tweeted this to The New Yorker, dozens re-tweeted my observation in agreement. However, there were also plenty of dissenters. “Terror is an act of violence to achieve a political end,” one typical tweet countered.
We will never know what motivated Adam Lanza, the young gunman behind the Sandy Hook massacre, as he killed himself before police could interrogate him. But even, as seems likely, he had no explicit political agenda, his acts, at least according to US law, would count as “terrorism”.
In the mid-1970s, the Law Enforcement Assistant Administration’s National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals classified six types of terrorism, including “non-political terrorism”. Both US federal regulation and the FBI define terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence… in furtherance of political or social objectives”.
This raises a couple of intriguing questions. Why did US officialdom and the media fail to describe Sandy Hook as terrorism and why have American commentators and reporters rushed to assume a political motive for the Boston attacks, even though older brother and presumed mastermind, Tamerlan, seems to have had plenty of personal issues and private grievances?
It would seem that even if terrorism does not have to be political, the use of this loaded term is often politically motivated. Mass shootings probably don’t make it on US society’s radar as “terrorism” partly due to the polarised firearms debate. Can you imagine what kind of a stink the gun lobby and people who believe that bearing arms is their constitutional right would whip up if the media or authorities started classing Newton as a terrorist atrocity?
In addition, there is simple human nature. It is much easier to vilify and blame those regarded as outsiders than those you view as your own. This can be seen, for example, in how conservative Arabs view Muslims in the West as “oppressed” but refuse to use the same label for the Middle East’s Christian minorities.
Likewise, while Americans and Europeans, especially conservatives, do not hesitate to call a spade a spade when it comes to Islamic terrorism, even when it isn’t, the situation can be very different when it comes to their own.
Take Breivik. When the identity of the perpetrator became known, “terrorism” and its derivatives suddenly vanished to be replaced by the more neutral “attacker” or “gunman”, and the media drew comfort from describing Breivik as a “lone wolf” or “madman”.
Why all the fuss, some might grumble, it is just semantics?
Well, the selective use of such emotive words as terrorism can have very serious real-world consequences. Ask Salah Barhoun, falsely identified as a suspect on social networking sites, who, fearing for his life, turned himself in to the police to clear his name.
In addition, this selectivity can magnify certain threats while downplaying others. Almost a year to the day before Anders Breivik went on the rampage, I wrote a column for The Guardian in which I argued that neo-Nazism and other far-right ideologies constitute a greater menace to Europe than Islamic extremism.
Numerous commenters dismissed my hypothesis as “scaremongering” and “agenda-pushing”. In fact, a common refrain among conservatives and Islamophobes is that “Not all Muslims are terrorists but the majority of terrorists are Muslims.”
While this is true in Arab and Muslim-majority countries, where the threat posed by radical Islam must not be underestimated, it is certainly not the case in the West.
Yet even our gatekeepers underestimated this menace. In its 2011 report on terrorism in Europe the previous year, Europol judged that the “threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane”.
Post-Breivik, the agency’s tone has changed. “Not one religiously-inspired terrorist attack on EU territory was reported by member states,” Europol noted of the previous year in its 2012 report, when “the majority of attacks were committed by separatist groups.”
“The threat of violent right-wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated,” the report stressed.
You would never have guessed this was the situation from public discourse and mainstream media coverage. On both sides of the Atlantic, “homegrown terrorism”, in most people’s minds, refers to the exotic, invasive Islamic variety, not the local common-or-garden breed.
Echoing these worries, albeit moderately, US President Barack Obama asked after the conclusion of the Boston marathon manhunt: “Why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and our country resort to such violence?”
The same question could have been asked about Lanza.
Across the Atlantic, a number of European countries have also been seized with a similar apprehension, as reports of young Muslims going off to fight in Syria surface. For example, here in Belgium, police recently raided dozens of homes of suspected recruiters and politicians are talking about taking drastic measures, such as confiscating the identity papers of young men at risk of taking flight or even passing specific legislation.
Although I understand why the state would be concerned about the security risk posed by traumatised and possibly radicalised fighters when they return, the fact that fewer than a hundred Belgian Muslims are thought to be fighting in Syria suggests that the public panic far outweighs the actual riskss.
It is high time for Europe and the United States to do some soul-searching and be honest with themselves about where the threats to their domestic security truly lie. This will not only aid them in underwriting the safety of their citizens, it will also help remove the distrust surrounding a stigmatised minority.
This article first appeared in The National on 27 April 2013.