The Boston Bombers Were Muslim: So?

Why we turn to labels in times of crisis -- and why we should stop
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A photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, as seen on his page of the Russian social networking site Vkontakte (Reuters)

Here is what we know -- or what we think we know -- about Tamerlan Tsarnaev: He was a boxer and a "gifted athlete." He did not smoke or drink -- "God said no alcohol" -- and didn't take his shirt off in public "so girls don't get bad ideas."  He was "very religious." He had a girlfriend who was half-Portuguese and half-Italian. In 2009, he was arrested after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. He was "a nice guy." He was also a "cocky guy." He was also a "a normal guy." He loved the movie Borat. He wanted to become an engineer, but his first love was music: He studied it in school, playing the piano and the violin. He didn't have American friends, he said -- "I don't understand them" -- but he also professed to appreciate the U.S. ("America has a lot of jobs .... You have a chance to make money here if you are willing to work"). He was training, as a boxer, to represent the U.S. in the Olympics.

We know, or we think we do, that Tamerlan's brother, Dzhokar, is "very quiet." Having graduated from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School -- a public school known for its diverse student body -- he received a scholarship from the City of Cambridge. He went to his prom, with a date and in a tux. He had friends. He posed with them, smiling, at graduation. He tweeted pictures of cats. He skateboarded around his Cambridge neighborhood. His personal priorities, he has said, are "career and money." He is a second-year medical student at UMass Dartmouth. He is seemingly Chechan by birth and Muslim by religion, and has lived in the U.S. since 2002. He is "a true angel." He has uncles in Maryland. He called one of them yesterday and said, "Forgive me."

These are provisional facts. They are the products of the chaos of breaking news, and may well also be the products of people who stretch the truth -- or break it -- in order to play a role in the mayhem. They are very much subject to change. But they are also reminders of something it's so easy to forget right now, especially for the many, many members of the media -- professional and otherwise -- who currently find themselves under pressure of live air or deadline: Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are not simply "the Marathon bombers," or "murderers," or "Chechens," or "immigrants," or "Muslims." They might turn out to be all of those things. They might not. The one thing we know for sure is that they are not only those things. They had friends and families and lives. They had YouTube accounts and Twitter feeds. They went to class. They went to work. They came home, and they left it again. 

And then they did something unimaginable.

***

That the brothers Tsarnaev are more than the labels we would hastily apply to them is obvious, I know. Then again, labels are especially tempting amidst the twin confusions of breaking news and municipal lockdown. Stories like the one that has now been shorthanded as the "Boston Bombing," or the "Marathon Bombing" -- among them "Aurora," "Newtown," "Columbine" -- have their cycles. And we have entered the time in the cycle when, alleged culprits identified, our need for answers tends to merge with our need for justice. We seek patterns, so that we may find in them explanations. We confuse categories -- "male," "Muslim" -- with cause. We focus on contradictions: He had a girlfriend, and killed people. She was a mother, and a murderer. And we finally take refuge in comforting binaries -- "dark-skinned" or "light-skinned," "popular" or "loner," "international" or "homegrown," "good" or "evil" -- because their neat lines and tidy boxes would seem to offer us a way to do the thing we most crave right now: to put things in their place.

The problem is that there is no real place for the Boston bombings and their aftermath, just as there was no real place for Aurora or Columbine or Newtown. Their events were, in a very literal sense, outliers: They are (in the U.S., at least) out of the ordinary. They were the products of highly unusual sets of circumstances -- of complexity, rather than contradictions.

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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