What If The Boston Marathon Bombing Suspects Weren’t White?

As I write this, the massive hunt to find the remaining suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has just ended. When the Tsarnaev brothers’ photos were circulated this past Thursday, catalyzing the extraordinary efforts to capture them, I experienced a number of emotions and thoughts. And among them was a reflexive, admittedly selfish prayer: “Thank you, God, that the suspects are not Asian or Asian-American.”

I was remembering 2007 when Seung Hui Cho unleashed violence on Virginia Tech’s campus, and how my heart stopped to see a fellow Korean-American was the perpetrator of such an unspeakable act. And I was also thinking of my fellow citizens who were also very likely relieved not to see someone who looked like them in those widely circulated FBI photos.

The Boston Globe featured a column on Thursday that quoted a local imam who asked, “What will happen to us if they arrest someone and that someone turns out to be a Muslim?” And as it turned out, the suspects did have ties to Islam. Older brother Tamerlan is believed to be associated with a YouTube channel featuring videos “embraced by Islamic extremist(s)”, according to The Boston Globe; younger brother Dzhokhar self-identified as a follower of Islam on his VKontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) page.

However, whenever people imagine what a Muslim extremist looks like, they probably do not envision ethnic Chechens. In a city on-edge from the blatant, brazen attack on one of its beloved sporting traditions and the subsequent manhunt, Bostonians began making their own judgments and enacting their own form of vigilante justice: a Muslim woman was punched and verbally abused in the Boston area by someone who shouted, “F*** you Muslims!” and “You are involved in the Boston explosions.”

She was not the only one. Some of the earliest post-bombing reports showed other individuals of Middle Eastern descent under suspicion, most notably the Saudi international who found himself a quick target of the initial investigation supposedly due to his suspicious post-bombing behavior. It’s more likely that it was due to his ethnic background, to how he looked.

Here in America, we pride ourselves as being a nation of immigrants, as we all are unless we are direct descendants of American Indians. How often have we heard the President wax eloquently on our country’s openness to people of all races, creeds, and religions, that it is this very openness that makes our nation great? Yet at the same time, America still has an immature understanding of what it means to consider all Americans truly American.

Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American,” the headline of a Salon article declared early last week. The article was trying to make the point that white terrorists are thought of as lone rangers, while non-white terrorists are thought to represent the collective group with which they are associated. For an example of this, look no further than the response to the fictional North Korean terrorists in the current movie Olympus Has Fallen, as reported by the Atlantic Wire.

(These tweets are some of the tamer ones. Go to this site if you have the stomach to see the more offensive and profane ones.)

If this is the reaction of Americans to a made-up example of terrorism, just imagine the outcry and outrage had the Boston Marathon bombing suspects been of Asian descent, or Middle Eastern, or black, or Hispanic, or any other non-white American or national.

As it turned out, the prescient title of the Salon piece was nearly spot on. On April 19, the police captured 19-year-old Dzhokhar, naturalized last year. In other words: a white American. And as far as I can tell, there has been no collective outrage from other “white Americans” that one of their own is the alleged cause of Monday’s mayhem in Boston. While I’m glad that there has been no evident increase in anti-Chechen sentiment here in America, I wish I could trust that this same restraint would manifest itself when suspects are non-white as well.

Perhaps the next time something like this happens — and tragically, it’s guaranteed that somewhere, someone is plotting their own twisted take on what Boston recently experienced — we will have learned both from this whole horrifying incident as well as from the accompanying rush to inappropriate and misguided judgment. Perhaps we will have reached a maturity level in which we avoid knee-jerk stereotyping that only hampers justice rather than further it.

That is a future worth prayers from us all.

About Helen Lee

Helen writes, mothers, homeschools, and attempts to stay on top of what is going on in the world, and usually not in that order. She is a longtime Christian journalist, starting with a stint in the mid-90s at Christianity Today, and her work has earned three Higher Goals awards from the Evangelical Press Association in reporting and devotional writing. She lives in the Chicagoland area with her three sons and her husband Brian, a classical pianist and professor at Moody Bible Institute. You can find out more about Helen at her website (www.helenleeauthor.com) and follow her on Twitter @helenleeauthor.

  • Joshua

    Well done; I echo the sentiments of this article. Many Americans are loathe to admit what you’ve stated.

  • http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com Jenny Rae Armstrong

    Amen, Helen!!!

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    Thanks for this. It’s important that we realize the problems we have with race in our culture and not shy away from addressing them when they crop up.

    I do think it’s important, though, to be careful how we talk about these problems so that we don’t oversimplify them or conflate issues that should be distinguished. Backlash against Muslim terrorists is as much a problem of nationalism as it is racism, and nationalism is a distinct, though often equally problematic, prejudice. Racism, too, is complex and manifests itself in a variety of ways. White privilege is real, but our racism problem isn’t just white-on-minority racism; many of the anti-Asian Twitter comments about Olympus Has Fallen linked in that Atlantic article were from Twitter users who appeared to be minorities themselves. Some minority groups, too, are victims of racism that is more severe (or at least more predictable) than others. Racist comments on Twitter aside, I don’t remember either Olympus Has Fallen or Seung-Hui Cho’s actions inspiring any real-life retaliatory violence against Koreans of the kind that Muslim Americans have been subjected to repeatedly since 9/11. And Cho, it’s worth pointing out, was treated as a lone-wolf disturbed individual in the same way that the Salon piece alleged is reserved for white perpetrators of mass violence.

    Again, I really appreciate this post and others like it that help me examine my own assumptions and reactions. I just think the subject needs a lot of nuancing and careful analysis if we’re going to make real strides in tackling racism.

    Keep up the good work!

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  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    “Perhaps we will have reached a maturity level in which we avoid knee-jerk stereotyping that only hampers justice rather than further it.”

    I join you in praying for that day. And yet, this piece builds on stereotyping idiotic responses to a movie posted on Twitter — a medium which itself does much to maximize ignorance and minimize reflection — as “the reaction of Americans to a made-up example of terrorism.”

    The Atlantic wire piece draws on a Tumblr post that shows a grand total of 15 Tweets that express disgusting, racist responses to the movie. I am not willing to draw from that limited evidence any conclusions about “the reaction” of *any* group of people to anything other than the fact that there are 15 people who have not used their gift of opposable thumbs in any way that justifies their possession of them. Let alone conclusions about “the reaction” of a society of more than 300 million people.

  • tsukishima

    Unfortunately, the story didn’t end with “he’s a white American.” Calls from GOP lawmakers to treat Tsarnaev as an “enemy combatant” and deprive him of due process show that 1) one’s status as “immigrant” and 2) one’s religion play into who is considered truly American. Citizenship does not play a role. Compare with McVeigh. Tsarnaev white? Maybe not American-white enough.

  • wil2pwr

    What you fail to mention in defining whiteness is that “white” is coded Christian.

  • JoFro

    So the comments by a bunch of idiots on Twitter is now representative of all people or most people? Seriously? What a load of B.S.

  • Joshua

    @JoFro

    “So the comments by a bunch of idiots on Twitter is now representative of all people or most people?”

    The article doesn’t say it represents “all” or “most” Americans. You added those words. It represents a sample of Americans who harbored anti-Asian sentiment in reaction to a *fictional* movie.

    It’s severely ironic that you’re reacting this way, implying that white Americans are the ones being prejudiced, as if the content of the article is completely oblivious to you.


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