Friday, April 26, 2013
At times a horrific circumstance will provide an excellent social laboratory for the study of peace and conflict. On mid-day of April 15, 2013, two bombs went off in Copley Square, one of the most major commercial and residential areas of Boston. This area also happens to be known to much of my family as home. All Americans felt the pain and outrage of 9/11, but this one was even more personal for me. My mother, sister, brother-in-law, step dad and four year-old niece were walking near Copley Square (about two blocks away) home from the Red Sox game they’d just enjoyed. Within an hour, one could see the national habits and myths, both admirable and dangerous, manifest as echoes of 9/11. This was perhaps best put on display by some of the major cable US media (specifically CNN and Fox News) in their failure to accurately report what turned out to be the non-arrest of two suspects reportedly caught on camera. For an afternoon, major cable news networks inaccurately “broke” the news that a suspect/s had been arrested and that an FBI press conference was imminent. It fell to the FBI themselves to correct the story. A couple of days after this, the Bureau did indeed release photos of two suspects, and by the end of the week, one suspect was dead in a shoot out with local law enforcement and the other was in custody.
The particular nature of the media failures here were not just revealing, they were dangerous. One reporter, CNN’s John King, felt the need to repeat numerous times in his banter with Wolf Blitzer that the arrest was of a “dark-skinned male”. Given that there had not even yet been an arrest, this information could not have been verified via the traditional three separate sources, yet it was repeated. While King and Blitzer did state that they did not have complete certainty, they also clearly reported that a “dark-skinned male” was in fact in custody. King stated, “I was told by law enforcement officials that a dark-skinned male was in custody”. The damage resurfaced from the darkest parts of collective American psyche and history, and was a clear reminder of the racist nature of our media even today. In a social and political culture where teenaged Trayvon Martin can be killed simply walking home with a hoodie, such mistakes by the media are not just embarrassing. They are perilous. Less than twelve hours after the bombing, a Saudi man, hospitalized with his wounds from the attack, had his apartment searched. Shortly after, a Palestinian woman in Boston was assaulted. Another young man, Sunil Tripathi, also misidentified as a suspect by social media, has since committee suicide.
The subtext of the errors was clear: the perpetrators of the Boston bombings were likely black, Hispanic or Middle Eastern. To incorrectly “confirm” this was to confirm what far too many were already primed to believe and to reproduce white privilege and the social oppression of black and brown people. This is important to understanding the collective narratives of 9/11 in the following way. Part of the national myth of American exceptionalism holds that the United States is a uniquely blessed nation, meant by God to represent freedom, human dignity and progress. Thus attacks on US civilians are not merely seen as outrageous crimes, and human rights violations (which they surely are), they are framed almost instantly as attacks on the values of freedom and democracy, even on civilization itself. In moving speeches at the Memorial shortly after the bombing, Gov. Duval Patrick and President Obama both invoked this narrative. Obama even specifically referred to America’s “state of grace”. And Boston itself of course (like Washington and New York) is rich with American history and symbolism. Corollary to this national myth is the view of other peoples as at least somewhat less godly, free, modern or brave. This casts ready suspicion on all who might be defined as less or not American. It hardly needs to be said from here that foreigners, immigrants, and those who are not white and Christian have historically been locked into this category. The consequences were lethal. While it is still too early to judge how we will respond to the Boston Bombing, one can already clearly see the ghosts of 9/11 haunting how we talk about and understand what occurred.