The Meaning of Boston
By Nayyer Ali MD
A few weeks have now passed since two young brothers of immigrant Chechen ethnic origin set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon killing three, then later shooting dead a police officer before the elder was killed and the younger captured. Beyond the physical violence suffered by the dead and wounded, the attack struck the American psyche and dealt another blow to the US Muslim community. In the few days between the attack and the capture, I’m sure many Muslims were hoping that it was not one of us this time. But as more details have come out, it is not clear who or what the two brothers represented.
Unlike 9/11, these were not dedicated operatives belonging to a global movement but rather just two confused kids who appeared to have hatched their plot a week or so before the bombing. It appears that the younger brother, who is only 19, was just along for the ride, and likely sucked into the warped world of his older sibling. The older one was a secular Chechen who never really fit in the US, coming here as a teenager. He found religion at some point in the past few years but there was no clear link between him and any outside extremist preacher or leader. He appears to have been “self-radicalized” perhaps through internet videos and sites.
So what was this bombing for? Why now and what did he intend to accomplish? And how significant an event is this for the US? In the scheme of things it was trivial compared to 9/11. For those who lost life or limb it certainly was devastating, but on that same day 100 people died in the US in car crashes and another 30 or so were murdered, not to mention the fertilizer plant in Texas that blew up and killed over a dozen.
Those sorts of statistics, showing how unlikely an American is to be killed by terrorism, do not calm nerves. People fear the random act of violence over which they have no control. Murders usually have a motive rooted in some interpersonal conflict, and most people think they can avoid car crashes by how they drive (not really true, but not the point). Terrorism can literally strike anyone in any place. It also has a theatrical quality to it, where it seeks attention by creating a spectacle of some sort. It demands more notice than the sheer body count would merit.
The elder brother supposedly was angry about the Iraq and Afghan wars and felt the US was attacking Islam. The bombing was his personal response to this.
There were some voices in America that took the lesson that Muslims simply can’t be trusted. Perhaps Muslims should not be allowed even to enter the US. These people argue that while not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslim. The statement is not literally true, but many people have short and selective memories.
The problems with this view is that it reduces a person to one dimension. The quality that made the brothers into terrorists was their religion, nothing more and nothing less. But that makes no sense. The fact that they were young males with troubled lives and a dysfunctional family had a lot to do with it. Most mass shooters in America are young angry white males, maybe we should deport all of them to make the rest of us safe? Most gang members in the US are young males from poor neighborhoods, if we got rid of all of them we would have no gang problem now, would we?
For Muslims it was frustrating to see this event play out as it did. Once again our community is tarred by the actions of a sole or few lunatics. In the last few years we have had one of these events every year or so. Major Hasan and the Fort Hood shooting, the Zazi case, the Times Square bomber, and now the Boston Marathon bombing. What does our community need to say and show these individuals?
We need to emphasize the first principle of Islam, to do justice, even if it is against ourselves. The killing of random individuals is murder, plain and simple, and cannot be justified by applying a political wrapping to the act. Beyond that, if one is truly disturbed about the state of Islam, be aware that Islam is fine. Islam cannot be harmed in any way, it is a religion and exists on that level. Muslims obviously can be hurt and can hurt others. If the concern is about the status of Muslims in the world, then get to work building rather than terrorizing. Obviously, there are many ways to improve the lives of Muslims, both here and abroad, through wonderful charities. Give them a hand, even work for them full-time. But if politics is what matters most to a person, then get involved in politics. Not through terror but the democratic process. Change policy by organizing the community and educating the public. It can be done, and unlike terror attacks, it actually can work instead of reinforcing the prejudices of the anti-Muslim bigots who do want to keep us outside of the American mainstream.