Like 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.
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.