This article first appeared in the Algemeiner on May 2, 2013.
On April 15, 2013 at 2:49 p.m. two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Most of us know the details, more or less – the three dead, 264 wounded and maimed, the days of fear, of investigation and pursuit, the two Chechen brothers, one a radicalized Muslim now dead, the other apprehended.
The very next day, time unknown, Tim Wise, “anti-racist essayist, activist and educator,” posted to his website “Terrorism and Privilege: Understanding the Power of Whiteness.” Fewer than twenty-four hours after the bombs went off, Wise had written 1002 words stating three lessons of the event.
That violence is unacceptable stands out as one, sure. That hatred — for humanity, for life, or whatever else might have animated the bomber or bombers — is never the source of constructive human action seems like a reasonably close second.
The third lesson was “a lesson about race, about whiteness, and specifically, about white privilege.”
Wise included 53 links to details of deadly “terrorist” attacks by white people over the past seven decades. That was a lot of research over the twenty-four hours, the very immediate aftermath of first events, or the names and links had already been collected. Either way, it is a lot of concentration, too, a lot of focus, on a theme without much knowledge of events.
The same day, within the same twenty-four hour period – at 1:24 EDT to be exact, so only 21.5 hours after the explosions, David Sirota published at Salon.com “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American .” Sirota’s general theme was the same as Wise’s. In fact, he quotes Wise’s essay of the same day, which means that Wise published even earlier than 21.5 hours after events, or that the two were in communication about their publishing intentions.
Wise and Sirota were not even first off the line. Salon.com had actually published, by Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon’s political reporter, on the very day, “After Boston explosions, a scapegoat emerges on the right.” The subhead read,
Following the New York Post’s lead, a belief is affirmed: The Boston explosions must have been done by Muslims.
The piece is even time stamped 4:36 PDT, which would be an hour and thirteen minutes before the explosions. Hildy Johnson’s got nothin’ on Alex Seitz-Wald.
It is clear that nearly instantaneous with the Boston bombings, there was a segment of the political spectrum invested in the idea that among the lessons to be learned, “[t]hat violence is unacceptable stands out as one, sure,” but that even if the attack was perpetrated by Muslims, the greater lesson to be learned would be about white people.
Coincidentally (?) that same day as Wise and Sirota published, the Huffington Post published, by Egyptian-Belgian writer Khaled Diab, “A Brief History of Western ‘Jihadists.” Also that day fromHuffington Post and Sonny Singh, “musician & social justice educator,” we got, only twenty-one hours after the attack, “Prayers for Boston and for an End to Racist [sic] Backlash.” From “neuroscience researcher, blogger, atheist” Vlad Chituc at Huffington Post, we had on April 17, “Even if It Was a Muslim, So What?” We had moved in fewer than forty-eight hours, during which it was almost immediately claimed a racist, scapegoating backlash had swept over the country, from let’s hope it’s a white man, whose whiteness is rich with meaning, to so what if it was a Muslim – that means nothing.
By two days later, anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss was publishing “Boston Marathon bombings unleash a new wave of Islamophobia.”
In what should make for discomforting symmetry, two days later still, on her Sunday MSNBC program, Tulane Professor Melissa Harris-Perry opined,
Given that they’re Chechen, given that they are literally Caucasian, our very sense of connection to them is this framed up notion of, like, Islam making them into something that is non-white.
Added Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, “We want to demonize the other. We have to distance it from the dominant culture.”
Again, the impetus behind this concerted flipping of the script on the Boston bombing was to deflect attention away from Islamic beliefs, behaviors or radical ideology as any kind of particularly identifiable source of indiscriminate, terrorizing violence in the modern world, and to draw it instead – even when the violence can, in fact, be directly tied to Islam’s role in the lives of the perpetrators – to white, Western, even Christian culture, which, in remarkable contrast to the proposed non sequitur (“so what?”) of Islam, according to these arguments, can be readily invested with all kinds of connective meaning.
As we see, this effort to deny the implications of violence originating from individuals or groups espousing radical Islamic beliefs was pursued both in anticipation of and after discovery of the bombers’ motivations. This was actually the second part of a two-part effort. The first part involved hyping any indications of prejudicial backlash against American Muslims.
All over the internet and other forms of media, participants in the creation of this preemptive narrative drew attentions to the same handful of public incidents, instances of yellow journalism, and inflammatory public comments.
Singh, who was already “praying” for the end to an already existent “racist backlash” – wrote,
We have to worry about being attacked because of the color of skins, the turbans or hijabs on our heads, the beards on our faces. I pray that people in the United States and beyond have learned something in the last 11 and a half years. I pray that the collective response to yesterday will be drastically different from the knee-jerk racism that pervaded the days, weeks, months, and years after 9/11/01.
From Singh to Chituc to Mondoweiss to UK Progressive to the anonymous Islamophobia Todayonline news aggregator to Chloe Patton at openDemocracy, we read about the New York Post’ssensational and erroneous tabloid reportage. We read of the Murdoch empire’s further fear mongering on Fox News. We read of comments by the predictable crack pots, such as Alex Jones and Erik Rush, and by the usual suspects of incitement, from Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Glenn Beck to Laura Ingraham, Steve Emerson and the always bizarrely quotable Dana Rohrhacher. The same two incidents – attacks on a hijab-wearing Palestinian woman in Massachusetts and on a Bangladeshi man in the Bronx – were reported in account after account as evidence of a “wave of Islamophobia.” From a left perspective, politically misguided and even hateful counter programming can be expected from these sources on any issue. Yet this strikingly miniscule selection of examples has been used to manufacture, in its own right, the sensationally fabricated storyline of anti-Islamic fervor and activity in the United States after the Boston Marathon bombings.
From a counter foundation of fear mongering, that of some impending or already actual wave of “racist” Islamophobic attack, was then offered the argument in demonstration, repeatedly, that while no relation between Islam and terrorist acts committed in its name could be meaningful ascribed, almost any group characterization related to the West, the U.S., Christianity, or Jews is empirically justifiable.
An outstanding example not on American media radar was the April 25 Patton diatribe atopenDemocracy. In contrast to the insular nature of American media and policy discussion, openDemocracy is well reflective of a cosmopolitan and internationalist left engaged in a broader discourse. In the aftermath of Boston, Patton’s piece warned in its title to “beware the multi-million dollar Islamophobia industry.” The article went on to hit many of the markers noted above, claiming that
the US Islamophobia industry has seized on the bombing to bolster its campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering, and we would do well to pay careful attention.
The evidence is abundant, however, that a counter force of apologists “seized” on the Boston bombings beginning on the very day of their occurrence “to bolster its campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering.” Seeking to expose the “Islamophobia industry,” Patton wrote,
A Centre for American Progress report found that between 2001 and 2009, [Steve] Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism organisation, along with Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, the Clarion Fund, Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, the American Congress for Truth, and the Counterterrorism and Security Education and Research Foundation received over US $42 million from just seven major foundations.
Who knows how readers responded to this account of supposedly massive funding of extremist anti-Islamic organizations, but it is unlikely they knew that amidst the rich and rich panoply of American public policy and political organizations of every leaning, the progressive Center for American Progress itself, in 2010 alone, had a budget of US$36 million.
In the course of paying special attention to Emerson, Patton informs that he is “warmly received by the Christian Right and the pro-Israel lobby.” She later notes that “the threat that cashed-up conservatives pose to democracy cannot be ignored.” In marked contrast, the threat that ordnance-bearing Islamist fanatics pose to democracy, and to every humane Enlightenment liberal value, should not be articulated.
Diab, in his diversionary Huffington Post blog, and much in the embarrassing form of Brian Levin, director of the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism, during his appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time, sought to deflect attention from Islamists in the twenty first century by citing “Western Jihadists” in any other century. If you hadn’t yet read modern Islamism excused by resort to the example of the famously obscure Guy Fawkes, and the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 to blow up the English Houses of Parliament, you know of it now.
The post Boston effort to erase from memory the record of contemporary Islamic terrorism, and the meaning of the beliefs that give rise to it, and to replace it with a narrative of typical and defining white, Western “racial” prejudice against Muslims has actually been long underway. Characteristic was Murtaza Hussain in Al-Jazeera last December warning of “Anti-Muslim violence spiralling out of control in America.”
What is the actual record of such violence?
According to the FBI compilation of hate crime statistics in the U.S., drawn from between eleven and fifteen thousand participating federal, state, and local agencies, since and including 2001, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States have averaged about 2% of all reported hate crimes each year. In contrast, hate crimes against Jews have averaged about 12.5%. Typically over those years, hate crimes against Jews have constituted 65-70% of all crimes with a religious basis. The total of all hate crimes against Muslims beginning with the recent peak year of 2001 through 2010 is 1608. During the same period, the total against Jews is 9470. Even when adjusted proportionately, the U.S. Muslim population being today about 40% of the Jewish, hate crimes against Jews are far more than double. In 2001, hate crimes against Muslims reached a height of 481. If we believe that these crimes are concentrated in a regrettable aftermath of prejudice post 9/11, then they were concentrated in a less than four month period. Yet that sad record quickly altered, for as soon as 2002 there was a drop to 155 reported crimes, and that number steadily declined to just over 100 until a 60% uptick in 2010. In that year offenses against Muslims rose to 160. Against Jews in that year the number was 897.
The point here is not for Jews or any other group to be in competition for most offended against and criminally attacked. The point is what the empirical realities are and what the narrative is being spun around those realities, for Muslims and for Jews, who as common and particular targets of Islamic anti-Semitism and Islamist genocidal threat and terror attack should have special interest in honest acknowledgement of international and local currents and the policies devised to cope with them.
Before 9/11, given the small size and recency of an American Muslim population, few Americans had had much experience of Muslims or knew or thought much about Islam, which is outside the historic experience of the nation and its culture. In contrast to the long black-white experience in the United States, originating in slavery, there is no long history to, or historical inherence of, anti-Muslim bigotry. Yet the effort is clearly afoot in some leftist ranks to incorporate purported culturally natural bias against Muslims into a general practice of white, dominant discrimination, even very pointedly to the point of spreading like a rash the misnomer of anti-Muslim racism. Thus, when thoughts arise of Islamist agency on the occasion of a terror attack, the urgent counter-claim is made within twenty-four hours that those very thoughts give expression to “racism.” They are a by-product of “white privilege.”
The sad slander of white privilege as a concept is its origination in, yet departure from, a profound truth – that, generally speaking, Westernness and whiteness in the world, like being American at this time in history or speaking English, or being tall or good looking, well rather than poorly educated, rich rather than poor, a smooth, easy talker instead of slow and halting are all natural or historically contingent bases for advantage in life. Some advantages, like the rewards of education, may seem eminently reasonable and fair, others, like those of good looks and height self-evidently not. To be a white male of the Western world, ah, there’s a long tale out of history, but it doesn’t tell very much the story of the coal miner or the cabbie, or the son of a cabbie who earned or learned his own way to an elevation in life that others may wish – judging just by appearance – to attribute to privilege.
An advantage may land in a roll of the dice; a privilege is in the power that loads them. The lord who preserves the manor lives a long way from the journeyman whose mother once dropped him near the verdure. The choice of white privilege as the denominator in this idea is a decision to accuse, not just of advantage or even immunity, but also of the due expectation of prerogative, and thus to charge with complicity, to impugn the natural moral consciousness, against proof to the contrary, of those so designated, simply by the color of their skin. Inviting resentment and ill feeling, the term generalizes, confronts, and makes defensive merely on the basis of skin color and it is, quite simply, on that basis alone, racist itself.
The resort to this sinking moral high ground is made by people properly concerned with the human ill of racism, but so preemptively concerned with it that they now layer that racial consciousness over the evidence of other features of reality. There may now be a contemporary world-historical crisis in the relationship between Islam and the liberal democratic legacy of the Enlightenment, but since that clash is between the inheritors of an historically tainted white European civilization and cultures readily otherized – orientalized – in multiple ways, western liberal democracy need be literally disarmed of aggressive defense by being intellectually neutered of any justification for it. Despite, then, the extensive record of the deep roots and long tracks of Islamist extremism, from Sayyid Qutb through the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and onward, from pre-9/11 terrorism to post-9/11 terrorism, elements on the American left, like those internationally, believe they can rhetorically erase weak public memories of the source and nature of Islamic terror much as similar tendencies attempt to obscure the historical record of Arab rejectionism of Israel and the reasons for Palestinian statelessness.
They reduce the mere suggestion of it to racist ignorance of white privilege.
Even the rare complex and subtle consideration, such as that by Wilson Brissett and Patton Dodd at the Atlantic (online), follows the trend. Drawing from a well of reference on religion as a personal psychological and cultural phenomenon, including William James and his Varieties of Religious Experience they tell us,
Fanaticism is not religion pushed too far. It is tribalism without a tribe. And it can be a particular risk with the geographical and cultural dislocation attending the American experience of immigration, whether for the Wielands of Saxony or the Tsarnaevs of Dagestan.
But of course, with the increase of migratory movement throughout the world, we see these stresses elsewhere, particularly now in Europe, which has less experience of it than the U.S. Still, the authors or Atlantic editors choose to title their article “The Boston Bombing: Made in the U.S.A.”
“Piety is the mask,” James, wrote, “the inner force is tribal instinct.”
Brissett and Dodd conclude,
For most of American history, this ressentiment has hidden behind a Christian mask of piety. The new mask of piety for the American fanatical killer is Islam.
Well, not only, or even much, actually, the American fanatical killer. Mostly Islam is the mask for the non-American fanatical killer. But the one question so many otherwise thoughtful people no longer care to ask, among the so many others they entertain, is why Islam.
That is the most astonishing characteristic of this movement – its willingness, the active effort, to intellectually disable itself, even as it seeks to disable the arguments of those who might critique Islam by finding in it, and not the West, a source of contemporary intolerance. Recall Chituc’s “Even if It Was a Muslim, So What?”
So what. There is the disarmament. In feigned intellectual apathy and dumbness, contrary to the most fundamental human developments of empirical and rational thought, to evidentiary detail, which is the very rightful charge made by the left against rightwing antiscience extremism. Yet as recently as May 1, this drift was evinced on the left, on this subject, on the Rachel Maddow Show, as Maddow reported on the charges brought that day against three friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
I admire Rachel Maddow. I declare this not to offer polite respect to excuse abashed criticism, but actually to emphasize the critique. Amid the minimal quotient of entertainment snark, she offers on her program some of the finest left – good – broadcast journalism. Not a straight news broadcast, her program presents what are really journalistic essays with a clear point of view, loaded with the evidence of good reporting and the insights of Maddow and her producers into the pretexts and subtexts of the conservative agenda and its policies. Maddow thinks, she perceives, she sees into things.
After Jared Lee Loughner shot Rep. Gabby Giffords and 18 others, for instance, killing six, there was much angry contention between gun control and gun rights advocates over whether politics and culture might fairly be ascribed any responsibility for the shooting, given Loughner’s mental illness. Many conservatives were outraged at the suggestion that culture might bear any of the burden of the products of it. Maddow argued otherwise on her program, running through a history of mass shootings just during Loughner’s lifetime. She said,
Given that, each new American gun massacre is both singularly horrific in its own way and it is insane not to acknowledge that it is part of a very clear, very frequently repeating pattern. Every time this happens, we look for answers and explanations and lessons in the specifics of the particular case.
In this case, the potential mental illness of the alleged shooter, the effort to try to find some political coherence, and what appeared to be his beliefs, the effort to find out whether it was his beliefs that note investigated the shooting, what exactly this killer was armed with, how exactly he was stopped, whether this could have been foretold by anything in his life—we look to these details.
That was then.
Now, apparently, Maddow has decided not to see into things, she has decided that making connections is, well… so what.
If one was attentive throughout the Boston arrests segment, a segment purporting to deliver rather straight news, one could pick up, from the very start, not Maddow’s clear point of view on the story, but her own subtext. The subtext rose closest to the main floor lobby during her interview of ex CIA and FBI terrorism expert Philip Mudd.
you have talked about the difference between an ideological association with a group like al qaeda and an operational association. an operational association would be the sort of thing we think about with them being kind of activated as a cell, them being directed to do something, trained to do something, and then they follow through. an aspirational or inspirational link would just be what they had in their heads when they were acting on their own accord. is that division between those two different kinds of relationships important in terms of whether or not we think about this as a terrorist attack versus a crime? should we care all that much about what these guys were thinking about if nobody told them to do this, if nobody trained them to do this, they worked it out on their own? [Emphasis added]
“Should we care all that much about what these guys were thinking?” So what. Don’t think, don’t make connections, abjure insight.
Like Brissett and Dodd, Maddow is advancing a new argument. Wrote the first two,
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar may have sought ties to other Islamic militants, but their actions do not appear to have been a centrally planned statement from a larger organization.
Maddow noted to Mudd, above,
you have talked about the difference between an ideological association with a group like al qaeda and an operational association. an operational association.
And a mere ideological association, “what these guys were thinking,” now that is something that we, in contrast, should not be thinking about.
Now, the champions of Galileo against the closed Christian mind, the inheritors of Darwin, the advocates of the scientific method that studies anthropogenic global warming have become the epiphenomenalists of terrorism: there are the hateful ideas and the violent acts. Make no connection between them, (unless it is to American culture, white people, “cashed-up conservatives” or the “Israel lobby”) and certainly do not think that the ideas produce the acts.
Do not even care. If one does not care, one doesn’t have to see. One can choose not to see.
There’s a term for that.