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.

But we don't often treat them that way. Instead, in times like this, we tend to emphasize adjectives rather than verbs. "How can you be a good person and a terrible person at the same time?" CNN asked this morning. That it would feel the need to wonder says a lot.


There is a kind of ritual, at this point, to interviews aired and published after murderers and terrorists and other high-profile criminals have been apprehended: "He was quiet, never bothered anyone," someone will usually say. "She always seemed so nice," another will offer. Or "I just can't believe he would do this." We saw this again with the Tsarnaev brothers today: the shock, the betrayal, the confusion. People who knew, or thought they knew, the suspects -- or people whose lives, in one way or another, intersected with theirs -- try to make sense of things, and cannot.

And their voices often get amplified: The neighbor goes on CNN, the boxing buddy goes on Bloomberg, WBUR gets aired on NPR. Which gives the local confusion the air of a national trend. In the media's megaphone, these conversations become a kind of blanket commentary on the banality of evil. The idiosyncrasies get erased. The circumstances blur. The humanity gets whitewashed. The terrorist -- the person with a lifetime's worth of unique circumstance -- becomes A Terrorist, and we load him with the freight of our own frustration. (Why would someone do this? How could someone do this?) We turn people into caricatures -- we decide that they are "crazy" or "disturbed" or "ideologically motivated" or "radical" -- so we can distance their actions from our own. And so that we can more easily deal with their actions in symbolic terms. "Evil" may not offer an explanation, but it does offer an answer. Sort of.

But it's that kind of conversion process -- people into People -- that led, this week, to the public fears that the bombers would turn out to be Muslim. It's the process that led, two days ago, to headlines like "In Boston Bombing, Muslims Hold Their Breath" and "For Muslim Americans, Boston Bombings Bring Added Anxiety" -- and that led, this morning, to stories about Muslim leaders now "fearing a backlash." The sad assumption carried in these reports is that Americans lack the intellectual equipment and moral imagination to tell the difference between an individual and a group. It's an assumption that has, in the past, occasionally proven valid.

Yet it's also symptomatic of a tendency, in the media and beyond it, to privilege caricatures over characters. Particularly when we have so much access to people's interior lives through social media -- this Twitter feed seems to be Dzhokar's, and it is revealing -- we have new license to think beyond categories (and metaphors, and stereotypes). We have new ways to bolster our categories -- "Muslim," "Chechen," "Causasian" -- with the many caveats they deserve. The Tsarnaev brothers may have been Muslim, and that circumstance may have, in part, motivated them in their actions on Monday. They may have been Chechen. They may have been male. But that was not all they were. Their lives were like all of ours: full of small incongruities that build and blend to drive us in different directions. Another thing we think we know about the brothers is that they lived in the middle of one of America's richest cities, near a gas station. And a retirement home. And an auto-body shop. And a really good cafe that serves homemade ice cream. As a place it is tranquil and gritty, urban and not at all. It is messy and busy and real.

One day, the brothers left it for Boston. And to understand why they did that -- to have even a prayer of progressing towards a world where two more young men don't do that -- we have to embrace complexity.