Newtown, Watertown, Anytown

1C635ADBLike many people, I spent much of last week fixated on the developing events in and around Boston. From the initial bombings to the subsequent manhunt, shootout and ultimate capture of the surviving suspect, my days were filled with twitter feeds, news app updates, and live reporting from a myriad of sources including NPR, BBC, and Al Jazeera.

Now that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been taken into custody the big question on everyone’s lips is, “Why?”  Why carry out such a cowardly and violent act?  This is a question we’ve asked many times when coping with tragedy.  Sadly, we rarely get a satisfying answer and for now we must wait until Tsarnaev is deemed fit for questioning to see if this time around is any different.

However, before we learned the identities of the suspects a different question hung heavy in the ether. “Who?” Who could have done this to us?

It seemed that there were two options.

Option A: Muslim Extremist
Option B: Homegrown Extremist

The first option is an obvious one, with our memories of 9/11 intact, not to mention all those nasty wars we keep fighting in dark-skinned parts of the world against people who “threaten” our “freedoms”. The fact that we collectively lump people of a certain faith into one suspicious package should set off many an alarm bell and conjure up many a historical counterpart to such unacceptable, and downright dangerous, behavior. And yet…

The second option is a little trickier, and perhaps more upsetting, given that we hate to think it could be one of our own carrying out such terrors. But by categorizing the homegrown variety as psychologically unstable individuals, social rejects, or just plain outcasts (Adam Lanza, Jared Laughner, James Holmes to name a few recent ones), we are able to make this possibility work for us as well.

With the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it seems like we’ve hit a terrorist jackpot, been given the “best” of both worlds: a 19 year old Muslim kid of Chechen origins who grew up here in the US in what will no doubt prove to be a disaffected manner (despite evidence to the contrary).  This scenario is rife with opportunity to peg the culprit as an outcast, foreigner, dissident, unassimilated other.

But therein lies the problem, for we are engaged in a distinct “Other-ing”. That is, the systematic distancing of ourselves from those who would do us harm. We paint them as “Others” to cleanse ourselves of any and all culpability, any and all responsibility. We point a finger away from ourselves, absolving us from wrongdoing by finding someone else to blame.

This “Other-ing” is evident in the cheering that accompanied Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture. How else can one explain the “celebration” evidenced by smiling faces, joyful laughter, and chants of “USA, USA, USA”?  Were it truly one of our own that had committed this crime what would there be to celebrate?  I am reminded, unfortunately, of similar (albeit more elaborate) scenes of jubilation after Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  His demise was cause for a mass block party (address 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) to celebrate the ridding ourselves of the most troublesome of “Others”.

This “Other-ing” also exists at an official level. Case in point, the debate on whether to administer Tsarnaev his Miranda rights and his possible classification as an “enemy combatant”. Does citizenship carry no protection?  Do we live in a police state that can freely withdraw that protection simply because an individual has hurt us?

This is not to say that Tsarnaev’s crimes should go unpunished, but if such punishment is to have any legitimacy then it must be in total compliance with our laws.  Do we have such little faith in our justice system that the only way to treat him is to set him apart from the beliefs and practices we supposedly uphold?

There is a greater lesson to be learned here about our sense of self in relationship to our sense of community. As evidenced by the “Other-ing” of Tsarnaev, when faced with a choice we inevitably choose exclusion over inclusion, and in so doing isolate ourselves from darker truths.

Jared Laughner Adam Lanza James Holmes

How much more problematic would it be to recognize the Adam Lanzas, the Timothy McVeighs, and now the Tsarnaevs as our own. It might raise dangerous questions as to why we (and not they) are violent.  Why we (and not they) are unhappy with our lot.  How we (and not they) are failing as a society.

These events are tragedies. Times for somber self-reflection and healing, certainly not celebration. At best, these are times when we band together and demonstrate our strength as community tied to all other communities. At worst, these are times when we separate ourselves from “Others”, chanting with a false sense of superiority.  But unless we look inward, solemnly, and point fingers at ourselves, then we will soon see another face plastered across the airwaves and cable networks, one that we will again try to call “Other” but we should all know is, in fact, US.

Silhoutted Mug Shot

5 thoughts on “Newtown, Watertown, Anytown

  1. Mali Joy

    Thanks for puting in perspective the inapropriate clapping and cheering of anything that wore a uniform. The majority seem content with simple answers for complex situations and this last incident is a labirinth of complicated questions. Shoot them dead! That is the easy way out.

  2. Heather

    Mischa, I didn’t know you are Buddhist! I am curious what percentage of people (other than those shown on the news) really feel like chanting, “USA!” through all this, do you think more than 50%? UGH. I think that 50%, unfortunately, may not be the sort to read your eloquent message or take Buddhist meditation classes. Shit! Did I just “other” that 50%?

  3. Meredith

    What I felt, after it was discovered who “they” were, was just complete sadness. After further contemplation, this arose from picturing this young man hiding in a boat, running the last few days of events over and over in his mind until the treads were worn to their thinnest leg. Like us, this young man was not a questionable outcast. And every one of us has lashed out, repudiated some law/authority, and retaliated against a perceived wrong to the extent of admonishment. Even it just means throwing a brick through your ex’s car window, perhaps what we are more afraid of is our own capability of committing such a deplorable act . However, there is always room to be forgiven and “get back on our path” or what have you. But this young man, through massive error of judgment?, had just taken himself to that indescribable barren place of no return. And he could only have been completely riddled with the confusion and despair of that thought and that reality, as the cold gray light shown through the tarp cover above him. There are MANY tragedies in this entire situation.

  4. Rita

    I said what you said on my FB pg. the celebrations were repugnant sport event reactions. I’m sure the victims families are not high fiving. Also the cable outlets and their violence porn hungry viewers took no time blaming dark skinned or Muslim or immigrant individuals. Citizens far from Boston appropriated this event as theirs. And all the while congress was blocking any control of the weapon that kills thousands of Americans every year. drowned out in the noise was the birth of the former presidents grandchild. Glad his kids are safe. Especially since he has the blood of thousands of innocent adults and children on his hands.

  5. Chris McKee

    Nice, measured response. I didn’t think of the USA chants in that regard until now, but I suspect you are at least partly correct in your interpretation.

    I was sympathetic to the withholding of Dzhokhar’s Miranda Rights in light of the concern for public safety (other bombs/bombers, etc). My impression is that the “Enemy Combatant” title has so far just been a proposal from congressional reps – one said to be done to extend the withholding of his rights until they’re sure everything is OK. But the title carries so much baggage I hope they don’t officially declare it.

    And hopefully the hunger strike the detainees in Guantanamo Bay are conducting will remind American citizens that there are PEOPLE the government has stripped of their rights.

    And regardless of the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty, it has been proven that the US conducted and endorsed the torture of “enemy combatants.” So this is not just an abstract consideration.

    I still believe that for the most part the US government is representing the will of the people. More of us just need to will humane behavior and vote for it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *