Homegrown Terror: The Boston Marathon’s Media Coverage

by | 8 May 2013

The moment of the Boston Marathon explosion

In the wake of the Boston Marathon explosions (15 April 2013), the Obama Department of Justice’s treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—American citizen and primary terror suspect—gained significant attention from liberal media. Dzhokhar will be charged as a civilian for using weapons of mass destruction; he was provided legal representation and Mirandized at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. Reportedly, he refuses to cooperate with questioning. He has been moved from Beth Israel in Boston to Devens Federal Medical Center (operated by the DOJ’s Federal Bureau of Prisons), which specializes in treating inmates who require long-term medical and/ or psychiatric care. Since his move to Devens, there have been suggestions that negotiations are currently taking place, potentially eliminating the death penalty as one of Dzhokhar’s potential sentences (if he is found or pleads guilty). However, it is unclear whether this offer was made by investigators, in hopes of gaining intelligence from Dzhokhar, or if the bargain was offered by Dzhokhar’s lawyers.

Indeed, there have been some astute questions posed in the press, particularly by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian, concerning whether or not the above story is entirely true. Greenwald’s concern refers to whether federal officials, who questioned Dzhokhar prior to his being Mirandized, had ignored his request for legal representation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little in American news media that either confirms or denies this suspicion. To my mind, however, one thing does seem to be clear, in light of these controversies. The American mainstream liberal media’s focus on Dzhokar’s post-arrest treatment—swiftly Mirandized and moved to a federal prison that specializes in long-term medical care—upholds a particular image of the Obama administration. This depicts a government that is aware of the limits of its power; an administration that is conscientious of the citizen’s care and is open to negotiations with him (however these have played out)—neither despite nor because of his charges, but simply because Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an American citizen. The liberal mainstream, in particular, has adeptly developed this narrative, particularly owing that Dzhokhar belongs to one of the U.S.’s most systematically profiled and Othered groups. The Obama administration’s conduct here, concerning civil rights, appears to be carefully legitimate.

Yet, with regard to the management of civil liberties in the wake of Marathon Monday, the administration’s portrait becomes much less clear. Conservative mainstream coverage of the incident’s potential suspects—before and after Dzhokhar and Tamerlan were identified—was unsettling, blatantly stoking public fear and contempt for Muslims. Thus, while the liberal mainstream depicts the administration as assiduously applying civil rights in its conduct with Dzhokhar, one may wonder what the administration’s reaction would have been if Dzhokhar were a foreign national. By extension, one cannot help but wonder if the conservative media’s emphasis on the bombings’ ‘persons of interest’—and deficiency in coverage of the disaster’s victims—may have helped to enable the violation of foreign nationals’ civil rights, as well as citizens’ civil liberties, in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. The mainstream (left and right) media’s handling of civil liberties violations leads one to question this administration’s actual objectives, concerning future modes of domestic counter-terrorism securitization. I’ll discuss how this brand of news reportage opens dangerous potential for future civil rights and liberties violations, and also raises unsettling questions concerning some of this administration’s long-standing debates.

Profiling & ‘Persons of Interest’

“Please don’t be Arab or Muslim,” many Americans tweeted, thought, and uttered as coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing proliferated. To the disappointment and outrage of many, this coverage was swiftly followed by a list of conspicuously-named potential suspects. One Saudi national, Abdulrahman Ali Alharbi, gained significant press in conservative media. Near the marathon’s finish line, he was tackled by a bystander and handed over to police; despite the injuries Alharbi had sustained in the blast, his running away from the explosion seemed suspicious. Early reports from Fox and its affiliates claimed (incorrectly) that Alharbi had been flagged on the U.S.’s Terror Watch List and was slated for immediate deportation. His apartment in Revere, Massachusetts was raided by FBI while he was held in hospital under armed guard.

Soon after the explosions, federal authorities went on record, as reported by CNN, “pleading” for the public’s help in apprehending suspects in the case: Did the public “know of anyone who made a threat involving April 15 or the marathon? Did they spot anyone near the finish line dropping off what ended up being the two bombs?” The response on social media platforms played directly into the hands of the conservative media’s rhetoric; soon, authorities had over 2000 crowd-sourced leads. As a result, yet another wrongly-accused individual came to appear in the conservative mainstream: Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had been missing since mid-March. He apparently resembled one of the blurry, recently-released suspect photos; comments on Reddit surmised that Tripathi had suspiciously “gone under the radar” in the weeks before the bombing. These comments and media coverage of Tripathi have been removed; and days after Dzhokhar’s arrest, Tripathi’s body was pulled from a harbor in Providence, Rhode Island. His remains were found by Brown’s crew team and his cause/ time of death remain—disturbingly—unreported.

These are only two of many wrongly-linked ‘persons of interest.’ Due to the unsavory mob mentality of both conservative and social media, multiple non-white individuals were subjected to the anti-Muslim vitriol that has come to distinguish America, post-911. And despite the liberal-left identification of the Boston area, as these speculations circulated, anxiety grew; even before the official ‘shelter-in-place’ order, students stayed home from university, children were kept home from school, and people called out of work. Boylston Street and the surrounding area remained closed to human and automotive traffic (only recently re-opening). Boston seemed to be holding its breath. When Alharbi and Tripathi were on the media’s radar, no concrete leads had been made in the bombing investigation and Boston residents worried that neither local nor federal authorities knew what to make of the bombing. Without a concrete suspect, the city seemed to face an invisible enemy—an enemy in essence and nothing more.  The unrest brought on by information in the news and social media served to reinforce the security control system to which the area had been subjected since Monday.

When photos of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan—all-American-looking, white males—were released to the mainstream on April 18th, social media erupted into distasteful jokes about “brofiling” (i.e., a form of humor implying that racial profiling can only be applied to non-white people). However, notwithstanding their American upbringing, once the Tsarnaev’s Chechen ethnicity was revealed, media on the right fumbled to give meaning to their terroristic activities.  Chechnya had scarcely been covered by the American mainstream media—likely due to the influence of a powerful Washington lobby group (the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, consisting of members such as former CIA director, James Woolsey; Pentagon Advisor, Richard Perle; Frank Gaffney, of the militarist Center for Military Policy, et al). Region coverage in the American mainstream had heretofore been positive and public relations-oriented. Until recently, Chechen Muslim rebels were depicted as freedom fighters, seeking independence from a violently oppressive Russia.

The conservative mainstream reoriented this ethnic identity; journalists reached for stereotypes to cobble stories that would ‘capture’ the Tsarnaevs’ apparent character. Eliza Shapiro, for example, postulated that Tamerlan was named after the 15th-century Central Asian warlord, Amir Temur (a.k.a., “Tamerlane”), who referred to himself as the “Sword of Islam.” Julian Loffe drew on the writing of Pushkin and Tolstoy to account for the brothers’ rebel temperament. Loffe also suggested that Dzhokhar was named after Dzhokhar Dudayev, who declared Chechen independence by pursuing jihad during the first Chechen war. Since the marathon occurrence, conservative portrayals of military struggles and political violence in Chechnya took on a villainously distorted character, much like the Middle East after 911; Muslim Chechens became figures of the same brand of fundamentalist Islamism as Al Quaeda operatives.

Publicity & the Survivors

In the aftermath of the disaster, The New York Times endeavored to shift the focus from the bombing’s culprits to its victims, reporting on several people’s recovery processes; the NYT also offered links to victims’ fund raising websites, in hopes of garnering support toward the costs of their care. However, conservative coverage of the bombing, and its revised characterization of ethnic Chechens, overshadowed the liberal media’s attempts to report on the disaster’s wounded. In lieu of empathetic reportage, the right kept its focus on the perpetrators, framing victims in aggregate—the collateral damage of unchecked, domestic Muslim fanaticism. The conservative domination-by-rhetoric of early-investigation news coverage, thus, enabled the perversion of the liberal media’s later, well-meaning coverage of victims’ bravery. Taken in the wider context of the Islamophobic reportage that has dominated media, the victims’ suffering was implied by the right as a reminder of precisely who caused it (read: Muslims).

Consider, for instance, Jeff Bauman, Jr., who had both of his legs amputated as a result of injuries he sustained in the bombing. The initial press that Jeff received, by both the right and the left, was spurred by the Associated Press’s release of a now-iconic, grizzly photograph in which he was featured (now only appearing in a number of cropped formats). On April 16th, The New York Times released a touching piece on Bauman, his prospects for recovery, and the impact that his injuries have on his family. On the same day, The Huffington Post released a similar, if shorter, piece, emphasizing Bauman’s survival and identifying him as the man from the AP photo. Not long after, however, Bloomberg News and several other conservative outlets released stories on Bauman, framing him as something of a martyr-patriot. Upon waking from anesthesia, Bauman, whose “legs were blown off” (as Fox designated his condition) described one of the bombers to authorities. Bloomberg broke this news first, offering an account very similar to Fox’s; and New York Post joined in, adding details on the high-profile celebrities who visited Bauman’s bedside.

One certainly cannot argue that Mr. Bauman’s descriptions were not a great help to authorities. Nevertheless, the conservative media’s depiction of victims such as Bauman is intently associated with the horror of the incident’s radical present. Surrounding Bauman’s story in right-wing and conservative media, are not reports of the disaster’s resultant human suffering, but gruesome footage from the scene. Fox News boasted some of the first “raw footage” from the bombing, which features an eyewitness clearly stating, “people have been blown apart” as panic ensues around him. In the weeks since, this footage has remained a high-impact item on Google, receiving thousands of hits on You Tube, and going viral over social media. And as similar video loops played on mainstream television news, a particular form of pain-exploitation seemed to propagate around these victims. In this way, victims’ suffering seems to have been adapted as a means for synthetically protracting the marathon’s immediacy and terror.

The Lockdown

The news of Bauman’s help to authorities broke (April 19th) as the Boston area and south coast region were officially ordered to ‘shelter-in-place’ (or, lockdown)—Dzhokhar was at large and, citizens were told, extremely dangerous. The night before, Watertown was terrorized by a shootout between the brothers and authorities. During the lockdown, house-to-house S.W.A.T. raids were carried out in Watertown and Cambridge and authorities continued to urge citizens to report information that they had about the brothers. Neighborhoods swarmed with federal agents, military, and paramilitary personnel. Rumors circulated that you risked arrest if caught outside during the manhunt. The people of Boston, and Massachusetts, remained terrorized—this time, by security service workers. Yet, amid Bauman’s story, gory footage from the blasts, and terrifying portrayals of Chechnya that appeared in the news, these measures seemed reasonable to the people of Boston.

A poll of Boston residents, taken shortly after the lockdown was lifted, revealed that citizens had not felt that their civil liberties were violated by authorities. This poll, as reported by the liberal Boston Magazine, revealed that an overwhelming 91% of residents felt that the police response was appropriate. The Washington Post reported a similar story, assuring the public that incidents in Boston would not erode citizens’ civil liberties. Indeed, this sentiment seemed to be echoed in the celebrations that erupted in Boston when Dzhokhar was captured. The city had been harrowed by coverage of the bombing, investigation, manhunt, and the atmosphere created in the lockdown; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the mood of their closing celebrations was patriotic. Over the course of that weekend, jubilation continued at sporting events and in the streets, police officers were applauded and embraced as heroes; and no reports of resident complaints about house raids or the lockdown have been reported in the press.

In the midst of this revelry, the mainstream media—liberal and conservative—have neglected to consider the potentially unnecessary extents to which authorities went in the wake of the bombing. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a 19-year old boy with no military or paramilitary training, and reports have surfaced to reveal that he was not armed at the time of arrest. The disproportionate relation of forces, between authorities and Dzhokhar, seems to have been extreme—even absurd. On April 19th, hours before his capture, the Boston Globe released a story reporting that Dzhokhar was a lesser threat than Tamerlan, and had likely not been on the FBI’s radar (unlike Tamerlan) prior to the marathon. Yet, as more than 75% of people gained information on bombing events from national television and online news outlets, it stands to reason that consideration of authorities’ potential overreaction would have been overlooked.

Boston in a Larger Context

The incredible acuity with which martial law was installed in the Boston area—American’s Cradle of Liberty—alludes to the chilling potential of future domestic objectives in counter-terrorism activities. The mainstream’s absent critique of this condition, and the terror that it exacerbated, should call attention to the passage of CISPA in the House of Representatives—occurring on the same day as the hunt for Dzhokhar. Little mention has been made of this passage in light of Boston. Of course, CISPA was unilaterally rejected by the Senate—but one wonders what role the primary elections played in that decision. And finally, with the positive press that drone technology has suddenly received—framed as a major, up-and-coming player in American education, economy stimulus, and job-creation—it may not be too far-fetched to wonder whether the domestic use of drones could be a potential horizon in counter-terrorism pursuits.

The mainstream’s failure to explicitly link issues such as CISPA and drone technology to the question of civil liberties violations in Massachusetts (beyond its reportage of litigious, national polling activities) speaks to its larger failure (particularly on the left) in coverage of the Obama administration’s handling of Dzhokhar. For one, as an American citizen, one should expect that Dzhokhar’s persecutory management would be carried out with his civil rights in mind. The administration’s conduct, arguably, deserves neither celebration nor criticism. And certainly, either response is an insult to those who were treated with iniquity, such as Alharbi; who, even without evidence verifying a legitimate security threat, presumably does not deserve civil treatment on the basis of foreignness. By extension, celebrating or criticizing this requirement reifies the conservative media’s sensational coverage of the bombing’s wrongly-accused.

Further, does not the liberal media’s continuing coverage of Dzhokhar (his captivity, psychology, and lives in Dartmouth and Cambridge) overshadow the suffering of the disaster’s wounded survivors? Questions remain unasked and unaddressed, concerning victims’ and eyewitnesses’ long-term physical and psychiatric care. While charity efforts will certainly help the most gravely injured in the immediate aftermath, how will they—and/ or the psychologically wounded—fare, in terms of future care? The Affordable Care Act has already come under scrutiny for its shortfalls in the realm of long-term care; can the disaster’s victims expect future policy amendments, in an effort to help them move forward with their lives? Will any kind of federal restitution be offered to those with limited or no healthcare coverage? Rather than address these concerns, the almost daily publicity that Dzhokhar receives arguably comprises a soft means of keeping the public’s consciousness focused on the pandemonium that characterized, not only Marathon Monday, but the days which followed. If obliquely, this reinforces the conservative media’s exploitative use of shocking footage of the bombing while the manhunt for Dzhokhar was underway.

The FBI and/ or the Obama DOJ’s handling Dzhokhar is not the point; civil rights and liberties should be given, and investigative (not sensational) reporting is needed when violations of freedoms and rights are institutionally justified. Such violations have certainly occurred, yet shamefully little mainstream critique has been made. Without any perspective on, or critique of, the unsettling, collusive relation between the Boston bombing’s reportage and the real-time, institutional events that grew in its wake, the public risks allowing future, institutionalized violations of civil rights and freedoms. Indeed, while a more investigative media alone would not effectively ensure the protection of civil rights and liberties, such a media would constitute an important part of a greater systemic change that is necessary to achieve this objective. The current mainstream media’s psychological jockeying impairs the public, when it should empower its ability to refuse such injustices.

Laurie Rodrigues, PhD, Critical Theory & American Culture/ Literature


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