Terrorism and Ethnicity in the American Media

I have a new article for Al Jazeera, The wrong kind of Caucasian, on the long history of the American media blaming an entire ethnicity for the violent acts of an individual:

It is easy to criticise the media, and after this disastrous week , there is much to criticise. But the consequences of the casual racism launched at Chechens – and by association, all other Muslims from the former Soviet Union, who are rarely distinguished from one another by the public – are serious. By emphasising the Tsarnaevs’ ethnicity over their individual choices, and portraying that ethnicity as barbaric and violent , the media creates a false image of a people destined by their names and their ” culture of terror ” to kill. There are no people in Chechnya, only symbols. There are no Chechen-Americans, only threats.

Ethnicity is often used to justify violent behaviour. But no ethnicity is inherently violent. Even if the Tsarnaevs aligned themselves with violent Chechen movements – and as of now, there is no evidence they did – treating Chechen ethnicity as the cause of the Boston violence is irresponsible.

One hundred years ago, the violent act of one Polish-American caused a country to treat all Polish-Americans with suspicion. Now, the Poles have become “white” – which is to say they are largely safe from the accusations of treason and murderous intent that ethnic groups deemed non-white routinely face. When a Polish-American commits a crime, his ethnicity does not go on trial with him.

But this change is not a triumph for America. It is a tragedy that it happened to Poles then, and a greater tragedy that we have not learned our lesson and it happens still – to Hispanics, to Arabs, to Chechens, to any immigrant who comes here seeking refuge and finds prejudice instead.

Read the full article here.

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15 Responses to Terrorism and Ethnicity in the American Media

  1. Farzana razvi says:

    Thanks for the wonderful article,however these kids have been convicted ,and a whole nation accused,just on the basis of some pictures without a trial.And that is a sad day for humanity.
    On September 11,2001,after the tragic events,within 24 hours we were shown some pictures and told these are the culprits,and we were expected to believe that.We have gone to war with Afghanistan,Iraq and destroyed these countries and its people,because our Government told us that OBL was responsible and he is in Afghanistan.
    Iraq of course had weapons of Mass Destruction (we were shown pictures of that too in the UN),and the rest is history.
    Had the journalist done their research,not based on what was fed to them but on genuine investigation,then may be thousands of our soldiers would have not died in vain ,many more might have not been maimed.
    Millions of Iraqi’s would have been alive today and those displaced might have been in their homes like you,and me watching their children grow.
    There are 166 prisoners rotting in Guantanamo without a trial;is this Justice?
    I am reminded of Malcolm X’s words:
    “I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda. I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
    let the Government prove it in an open court of Law ,beyond a shadow of doubt and then see if anyone will hesitate to see them punished.
    Until then we can pride ourselves of our Democracy ,and our values to no avail.
    Farzana Razvi.

  2. sbrianhood says:

    This was a wonderful article. Thank you.

  3. Reyhan Eren says:

    Thank you for your article. After having watched the live broadcast I was truly appalled by the way the news was reported and comments of some biased reporters on CNN INTERNATIONAL LİVE.

  4. Reyhan Eren says:

    I was truly appalled by the live coverage on the Man Hunt for a 19 year old Djohar Tsarnaev. There are so many contradictions in the news about this boy.
    The boys profile and statements given by friends, teachers and coach just does not match what the reporters were saying.
    All his friends said positive things during the live coverage, but reporters kept pushing these young people on possible terrorism links and one of his friends after long positive comments said that a month ago they talked about terrorism and CNN took this comment and posted it under the screen for a long time. This one line of comment, taken out of context from all that was said just sat there on the TV screen for a long long time.
    The reporters told us they had robbed a 7Eleven and then later we were told that was done by some one else.
    They said it was quiet during the day because he needed to sleep. It turns out he was shot.
    They said he ran over the body of his wounded brother with a car. Turns out he was escaping on foot.
    They said the brother had bombs around his body and a detonator in his hand. How could a car run over him without exploding?
    They said he was very dangerous and probably had a bomb wrapped around him and was armed. I was watching live and he seemed like a wounded boy with no guns and no bomb.
    His uncle was green with fear it seems and seemed hysterical in his tone of voice as he tried to disassociate himself and his family from the boys. But the uncle’s speech seemed to have been organized by the FBI as we could see the agents and lots of microphone arrangements.
    Because this boy was from Chechnia there was lots of reference to terrorism in this area and that these people could naturally be inclined to kill people is what the reporters kept repeating. Also the fact that he was muslim also contributed to the judgmental remarks of various reporters.
    You don’t need to be an expert to tell that this boy and his family have nothing to do with radical islam.
    As ı watched live the moments he was caught I remember there was no shooting sounds and the reporters on site said nothing about any shootings. There was only the noise of sound bombs thrown by the police to stun him as the reporters explained to us. But 18 hours later I watched a video CNN had posted on its web site and in that video obviously put together later, the reporter told us that the boy fired at the police just before they took him out of the boat and later in the news it was said that he shot himself. How then did he get out of the boat himself without any help? (There are many photos showing this) Can a doctor explain this. He didn’t seem armed as well.
    From the pictures It seems like both boys were shot in the face.
    I watched the video from the street cameras and and the older brothers back pack is very dark gray, Djohar’s back pack is very light bej with black linings. The pack they show on papers as the one with the pressure cookers is black and the straps have reverse colors that the one Djohar had.

    The way the news was told on CNN, this 19 year old kid has already been convicted in the eyes of the American public before he has been heard of. How sure are they that they have the right person or that this boy is guilty?I looked at the pictures in the news there are lots of people with black backpacks. Even if he was involved in some way is he not entitled to a doubt until proven guilty.

    I have been able to see all this as a house wife with children and time to sit and watch the whole live coverage. I later fallowed the news in papers and TV. I watched the LİVE coverage named MANHUNT LİVE from CNN int AND AL JAZİRA AND BBC int all the way thru until DJOHAR was cought and taken to the hospital. I too have a 16 year old boy and my heart sank last night as I watched the Live coverage which seemed more like a hysterical witch hunt with thousands of police, squad teams, FBI agents, helicopters, special forces etc. If he is guilty we shall have no mercy, but what if he is not?

    There is something terribly wrong with the way this news was covered and commented on by biased and prejudiced reporters and their unethical reporting techniques. American people are pictured dancing and rejoicing hysterically which does not fit well with the events that have unfolded in the past week.

    I remembered the ” Ox bow incident” o novel our teachers had us read at 8th grade. We are after justice, are we not ? America is a land where rule of law prevails is it not? I have alwayras looked up to the American Democracy. As I read more and more on the internet I learned about he “the gun bill ” and ” the immigration bill”. All these do fit in well at all.

    Please help justice prevail. If this boy is innocent , the way the events took place in front of millions of people and the way it was publicized later is hurting our values of justice, good and fairness. I would like to see the true criminals found and tried.

  5. zirapcha says:

    Sarah, thanks for a wonderful article. Following the news, and horrible analyses of the region, I was wondering when your piece was coming. It was frustrating to read articles that try to make everything about ethnicity; it’s shocking to read lines that say that it was not surprising that Tamerlane was a boxer, after all, that’s all they are good for – they always fight – it’s natural. I also thought it was ridiculous using Tamerlane’s flashy shoes, scarf and the car (and the name!) as something that made him distinctly the “other” (or Other’s other, since most of these descriptions seem to be coming through Russian literature/rhetoric), the Kavkazec, that can be spotted in Russia or Austria. It reminded me of all those “awesome” descriptions and analysis of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz that they used during the riots in Kyrgyzstan (didn’t someone say Uzbeks were like Persians, and Kyrgyz are like Slavic Russians?).

    I am hoping someone will write on Russia’s response on this fairly soon. As Russia will most likely play this for their own benefit; and will probably raid a number of “undesirables” and pin things on them. Their news commentators are already quite obviously making “Putin told you so” kind of remarks (about the fact that the USA never really backed up “Russia’s war on Chechen terrorism”). I won’t be surprised if IAK and Co. uses this to their own benefit too.

  6. RebeckaT says:

    I too enjoyed this article, but you wrote “the media has,” and it should be “media HAVE.” It’s a plural word.

  7. japanologist says:

    As per your article on al jazeera.com, “The wrong kind of Caucasian”. I’ll be the odd-man out, and offer that I find your argument forced. You start with: “Despite the Boston bombers having little to do with Chechnya, the media were quick to demonize an entire ethnicity.” This is an overreach for anyone who’s been following the mainstream news. Sure, I agree that there’s a rush to make sense of how the backgrounds of these thugs might present clues into their motivations; for instance, there’s now a flood of scrutiny into the older brother’s travels to the region. But, really, it’s just over-the-top to suggest that media discourse around Chechen or Central Asian peoples has taken a sinister tone. It simply hasn’t. And your evidence is really lacking. You cite (count ’em!) three articles as evidence: one is from a right-wing British tabloid; the second from a conservative columnist in a conservative Canadian newspaper; the last from WAPO. While the first two are riffing on their favorite whipping posts (Islamism and Stalinism), the third in WAPO completely contradicts your point. After opening with some background into the Chechen question, A. Applebaum explicitly states the opposite of what you suggest she states: “Look, instead, at another possibility, one that is in some ways more disturbing than the convenient “foreigners who hate us” explanation…(their behavior) resembles the second-generation European Muslims who staged bombings in Madrid, London and other European cities. Educated and brought up in Europe, these young men nevertheless felt out of place in Europe.” Her point would seem to de-emphasize their Chechenness, and point the lens on their disaffection–which IS a much more common narrative in the media as I see it (and probably not without merit).

    I would suggest, though, that you do a slight of hand when you conflate the demonization of Muslims in general with Chechens. No doubt there’s a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric to go around. No need to stretch the point to include some kind of imagined anti-Chechen sentiment. Thankfully–for now, at least–it’s just not there.

  8. Pingback: Garland Turns Ignorant Media Coverage Inward | Will Opines

  9. Peter Ball says:

    Hello Sarah, I just read your piece on Al Jezzera “the wrong kind of Caucasian”. I was just wondering your thoughts as an anthropologist on a contrary view that says that the brothers did not have to live in Chechnya to have learned the historic views.


    All the best, Peter

  10. bahtman says:

    Thanks for writing! This was a really great article. I’ve shared on facebook and many of my friends are equally impressed! Keep writing!!

  11. Leo. says:

    I noticed that in your article (nice by the way) you affirmed that the Elvis impersonator (at the time a suspect and now cleared of all charges) was the responsible for sending the letter containing ricin to Mr. Obama: “…on that Mississippi Elvis impersonator who tried to send ricin to Obama.”. The fact that someone so offended by stereotypes and pre-judgement finds “innocent until proven guilty” so unnecessary is disturbing. I think you could take the time to amend your article and apologize to Mr Presley.

  12. Stan says:

    Because you are an anthropologist, while disagreeing with you on some points, I must explain where (I think) your article went wrong. While most of the media were quick to put a finger on the religion and ethnicity of the perpetrators, there is absolutely nothing wrong in trying to understand the background of these men and why they decided to turn to terrorism.
    Specifically, I enjoyed some of the analysis on the historical background of the Chechen / North Caucasian conflict, numerous attempted religious and ethnic cleansing by the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and subsequently the Russian Federation; radicalizing the conflict by transforming it from the nationalist pro-independence to the ultra-religious, suppression of independent and political life and post Second-Chechen-War transformation of the Chechen Independence movement into pan-Islamic terrorist organization seeking the establishment of the Islamic Emirate.
    In my opinion any analysis on any of the political issue are good in nature, regardless of the intellectual level of the author and how correct or incorrect such analysis are.
    Not many people and subsequently the policy-makers are aware of the issues that affect the world, such discussions can influence public opinion and create discussion on the policy-making levels.
    I hope that it will bring new policies in need of deradicalizing various volatile regions throughout the world, (investment in the secular education in the Middle East and specifically social studies, would do tons of good in helping to change the perspective of that society towards the Western World), number of its policies towards Russia.

  13. visibone says:

    You make a compelling case against the power of ‘spin’ to distort.

  14. Ahaa, its nice dialogue regarding this article here
    at this website, I have read all that, so at this time me also commenting here.

  15. ATJ says:

    Ridiculous article. Rhetoric by those who are not prepared to enter into the narrative with honesty. This religion has a number of hidden formulae that it endeavours to hide from the west: 1.Abrogation and the killing of those that are ‘not-in-submission’, encapsulated by a hidden 6th pillar. 2.Dhimmitude and subjugation. 3. The attempt to equate Israel and America with Satan while their behaviour is more satanic than anything that the west can concoct. 4. A religious community that cannot bridle the ‘extremists’ because the extremist views were embodied in the actions of their ‘perfect prophet’ for others to follow as an example. 5. A ‘Holy Book’ that was forever with their god yet who changed his mind in time – a contradiction that none in the religion is even open to address for fear of reprisals and the accusation of blasphemy. 6. An accepted practice of lying – Taqiyyah – deception that carries the blessing of their god……and many such things.
    To veil this story in a cloak of inadequate humanity is a maligned effort by a representative of a religion that does not define human rights for any, but uses finessed and shaded meanings to pander to its own audience. A religious bigot that wont admit that this religion sees itself as ‘peaceful’ only in a future context when there is no resistance to it and its ‘saviour’ returns to inflict more bloodshed.

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