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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Pointlessness of Spinning an Event Like the Boston Bombings

Police investigate bombing scene
I saw the article yesterday, but I kind of set it aside. In it, the Boston Globe reported that the Boston Marathon bombing has all the earmarks of a domestic terror attack.  I bookmarked it and tagged it for later, thinking that maybe it would be better reference from a historical standpoint than from a predictive one. After all, rightwing bloggers have been using baseless speculation to cover themselves in clown paint and I wasn't eager to emulate their failures. I thought the article would better serve as a "clues were there" reference (or "clues were misleading," as the case might be). The article describes the bombs as "crudely made" and suggest that the death toll indicates they weren't as effective as the bomber would've hoped, "making it unlikely that they were the work of a foreign government or global terrorist group, such as Al ­Qaeda." Besides, Islamic terrorist organizations always claim credit for bombings -- that is, after all, the point: to spread terror -- and we're now approaching the end of the 72 hour window in which those claims usually are issued. In incidents of attacks by lone domestic terrorists, it's generally the case that no one takes credit, because the perpetrator doesn't want to risk providing more evidence. In these cases, the purpose of the attack isn't to spread terror, but to "strike a blow" against a perceived enemy from the perspective of their own lives (i.e., the DC Sniper, the Olympic Park bombing, or Oklahoma City). Sophisticated terrorists try to perceive their attacks from the eyes of the media and the populace. From the Globe article:

Juliette N. Kayyem, a Globe columnist and lecturer at ­Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who has spent years working on counter­terrorism and homeland security, said she thought the bombing was probably the work of a terrorist in the ­Boston area who would appreciate the race’s importance to the local culture.

“It is probably home-grown, someone with a political cause from the right or the left,” said Kayyem, “someone who knows how appealing the Boston ­Marathon is to citizens here.”

“Even though it’s an international event, it is still a local event,” she said.
Of course, none of this is to say it isn't an Islamic terror attack -- which was why I approached the piece with a healthy amount of caution and a grain of salt. What people surmise and what people know are two entirely different things.


But a piece by David Sirota caught my attention. In it, he argues that it would be better for the nation if the bomber were some sort of white extremist, rather than a foreign national. Because white privilege would kick in and guarantee we don't overreact as we did after 9/11; with war and the PATRIOT Act and government torture chambers.

As we now move into the official Political Aftermath period of the Boston bombing — the period that will determine the long-term legislative fallout of the atrocity — the dynamics of privilege will undoubtedly influence the nation’s collective reaction to the attacks. That’s because privilege tends to determine: 1) which groups are — and are not — collectively denigrated or targeted for the unlawful actions of individuals; and 2) how big and politically game-changing the overall reaction ends up being.

This has been most obvious in the context of recent mass shootings. In those awful episodes, a religious or ethnic minority group lacking such privilege would likely be collectively slandered and/or targeted with surveillance or profiling (or worse) if some of its individuals comprised most of the mass shooters. However, white male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated/targeted for those shootings — even though most come at the hands of white dudes.

Likewise, in the context of terrorist attacks, such privilege means white non-Islamic terrorists are typically portrayed not as representative of whole groups or ideologies, but as “lone wolf” threats to be dealt with as isolated law enforcement matters. Meanwhile, non-white or developing-world terrorism suspects are often reflexively portrayed as representative of larger conspiracies, ideologies and religions that must be dealt with as systemic threats — the kind potentially requiring everything from law enforcement action to military operations to civil liberties legislation to foreign policy shifts.
He goes on to cite anti-racist author Tim Wise, who spelled out the argument explicitly: "White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for your group to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening or threatened with deportation. White privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won’t bomb Dublin. And if he’s an Italian-American Catholic we won’t bomb the Vatican."

In other words, if it turns out to be another Timothy McVeigh, the people from his hometown won't wonder when the drone strikes will be coming and we won't be experiencing a rise in hate crimes against young white males. Institutional racism is amplified in these situations and we tend to throw caution to the wind.

As a result, it might be tempting to believe that this was a white political extremist of one of the many flavors of extremism out there. But you can't make it be. That's where the rightwing bloggers get it so completely wrong. They're so used to spinning stories to try to make people perceive news a certain way, that they're busy trying to spin this into something it may later be proven not to be. If they manage to make us certain that we're looking at some foreign terrorist attack and that gets proven untrue, not many are going to continue to believe it was a foreign terrorist attack. You can't make the event conform to what you hope it is or isn't. In these case, spin is pointless and only serves to make you look like a shameless opportunist and a fool -- which is exactly what you would be.

Right now, the truest thing in the world is to say we don't know. Looking ahead to possible consequences is probably wise -- it's better to be prepared. But predicting consequences and identifying culprits is, at this point, inviting failure. We'll know who do it and why soon enough. Until then, let the perpetually fearful and wrong wingnut bloggers cover themselves in clown paint. Leave your own face alone.


[photo by hahatango]

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