Shelter in Place: How to Talk about the Alleged Boston Marathon Bombers?

by Donovan Schaefer

White.  Foreign.  Muslim.  Young.  TraumatizedConservativeIsolatedAmericanized.

The Tsarnaev brothers, believed by law enforcement to have been responsible for last Monday’s bombing attack at the Boston Marathon, fit poorly into existing media scripts about the perpetrators of violence.  They don’t match the remorseless brown Muslim or the raging white American ultra-nationalist. (Though it is worth noting that they are male–a fact that we take so much for granted now that it no longer even seems to be deemed worthy of comment.) The closest template they match would seem to be that of the violent, young male school shooter, right down to the uniform baggy clothes and generic baseball caps, one of them worn backwards like the Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.  Like the Tsarnaev brothers, they, too, had the veneer of a nationalist ideology (a watered-down white supremacism; the date of their attack may have been timed to coincide with Hitler’s birthday) but it seems absurd to want to raise their politics to the level of a motive.

This twisting of the scripts by which the media filters and processes acts of “terrorism” is important.  It sidesteps the ruthlessly simple logic of American anti-Muslim racism by reminding American media consumers that Islam is not so easily racially coded, subtly unraveling the very thick equation, in the American media imaginary, of Islam with brown/Other bodies.  It displaces Islamophobia, too, by making traumatic histories and the (male) reaction to trauma central.  It also defeats the easy equation of ideology and violence.  Whether coded as political or religious, only the most insipid commentator would pretend that a particular agenda was the active agent in this tragedy.  Perpetrators and commentators alike are perhaps best understood as bringing political and religious frames to bear to dress up agendas that were already moving forward.  Ideology here is dragged behind bodies rather than driving them.

There’s going to be immense pressure from the media–especially the conservative media–to resist the torsion that these boys’s bodies throw into the coding scripts that we’ve used to negotiate debates on immigration, Islam, and terrorism. It will come in the form of an attempt to delete their embodied particularities from the situation and make them into transparent emblems of an ideological agenda.  But the only way to understand Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is to find them within a multilateral history, an intersectional history that refuses religious, racial, or ideological reduction, and instead lets a complex, tragic, wounded pair of bodies come to the fore.

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