This post was written by guest contributor Nur Laura Caskey.
Ricki Lake. Jerry Springer. Judge Judy gone horribly wrong.
In his lectures on how Europeans came to determine which things would be considered “abnormal,” Michel Foucault says
“expert psychiatric opinion allows the offense, as defined by the law, to be doubled with a whole series of other things that are not the offense itself but a series of forms of conduct, of ways of being that are. . .presented in the discourse of the psychiatric expert as the cause, origin, motivation, and starting point of the offense.”
In other words, as soon as one is accused of a crime, the first instinct is to root out evidence of the assumed psychological deviance that led to the crime. To give some concrete examples of this from popular American culture, think Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, and Judge Judy.
No – think media portrayals of the Boston bombing suspects.
No, rather, think media portrayals of the Boston bombing suspects’ mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaev.
From the minute a suspect was named, the U.S. media turned into one huge amalgam of Rikki Lake, Jerry Springer, and Judge Judy (with a sprinkling of Cops!) gone horribly wrong. From the start, the suspects’ parents (and until there is a hearing and a legal verdict they remain suspects and only suspects) repeatedly declared their belief in the innocence of their sons as the nation greedily followed every second of updates as one young man was shot dead, his younger brother hunted, and their entire family history splashed across the screen. However, it is the mother’s impassioned defense of her sons that has taken center stage in the mainstream media’s push to prove their culpability. In just days Zubeidat’s own interviews and testimonies became prima facie proof (and of course, according to the nature of the discourse, assumptions of deviance can never be proved false) of her sons’ degeneracy by putting on display how she herself is a “bad” mother.
Take, for example, this article. Published just one day after the suspects’ names were released and her oldest son killed, it sums up succinctly what so many other articles throughout that Saturday were leading up to: this woman must be crazy for not agreeing with the federal agents and media. Nevermind that many of Zubeidat’s testimonies concerning her sons actually correspond to issues these same news sources had previously covered – namely, the use of FBI plants in mosques to provoke (and then convict) gullible young men into terrorist plots, the CIA’s collusion with the NYPD in using “mosque crawlers” to spy on Muslim communities, and CAIR’s assertion of a link between anti-immigrant rhetoric and Islamophobia in their report “Islamophobia and Its Impact on the United States.”
The “real” issue is, where did all of this violence really come from? Not even a day after the misogynist MSNBC article cited above fell back on painting Zubeidat as irrationally emotional and overly biased, news sources began popping up with smoking gun evidence of her unreliability and, of course, the definitive marker of her sons’ deviance: a mug shot. Here is a terrible mother. Not only does she repeatedly deny the media’s claims against her sons, vacillate in her accounts and react in a very human manner that refuses a single defining narrative- on top of all of this, she is “Russian,” “Muslim,” and now a shoplifter. Her “crime” is not the bombing but the outside circumstances of her life that allow a vilifying narrative to take place – and thus, through her vilification, the degeneracy of her sons becomes much more understandable and easy to believe.
Echoes of Cold War media scares and paternalism reverberate throughout interviews with her as commentators take turns in informing the public of her life and assuring them of her Russian identity. Stronger echoes of Freudian psychology and post-9/11 media scares present themselves in how she is blamed alternately for being too supportive of her son’s religious quest and not being attentive enough to the “obvious signs” of her sons’ “radicalization.” As a not-so-subtle coup de grace, the appearance of the mugshots, catering to the tenets of European psychology, cued the nation for subconscious chants of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” since it could be clearly seen now that the root of pathology lay squarely with the mother. Sigmund Freud would be proud.
If this all seems like too much of a stretch, take a gander at this article published Monday, April 22, three days after the suspects were named and information about them began livestreaming to media outlets. The article initially uses the word “parents,” but it is Zubeidat who becomes cited again and again as de facto “proof” of terrible parenting. What makes her a terrible parent? Well, from the start she is described as “blinded by adoration and excuses,” “deluded,” refusing to correct Tamerlan’s “conspiracy theories,” and, of course, she is a shoplifter. Spare the rod, spoil the child? Once a bad egg, always a bad egg? Of course, bad eggs are made by bad parents, and most especially bad eggs are made by bad mothers. Men like Uncle Ruslan who willingly defame the Tsarnaev brothers are given as the voice of reason while Zubeidat is continually blamed for being irrational, simple-minded, and stubbornly ignorant. She is damned for being too loving, but also for not being overprotective enough. Somewhere the ghost of Foucault sighs at the affirmation of yet another of his theories when, in a religiously fanatic vindication of the panopticon, the columnist concludes with:
“You can’t expect witnesses to report every fanatical outburst to the FBI. But when family members are repeatedly exposed to signs that a loved one is drifting into the vortex of violent extremism, they have a duty to intervene, or at least to alert someone. If they don’t, and the fanatic becomes a killer, they bear an awful responsibility. If they deny that responsibility by accusing the police and the government of anti-Islamic conspiracies, they forfeit our sympathy, our respect, and our trust. Police your family. Police your congregation. Police your community. If you don’t, the rest of us will do it for you.”
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Of yourself, of your mother, of your children, of your community. The root of pathology, of deviance, of degeneracy lies in the nuclear family, and the core policing agent of that family – the one who determines whether it is a “good” or “bad” family – is the mother.
During the Cold War, a Communist could be (and frequently was) any American, and from the Gulf War to 9/11 to now a Muslim American could be (and, in fact, is) any American. Perhaps the reason for such violent attacks as this on the image of Zubeidat lies in the fact that the Tsarnaevs could be (and, quite literally, are) any “white” American family, that shibboleth of “Americanness.” The family dynamics being so sensationalized in the media right now could describe any family in America. There is no abnormality here, so instead it must be found through “a whole series of other things that are not the offense itself but a series of forms of conduct of ways of being that are, of course, presented. . .as the cause, origin, motivation, and starting point of the offense” – starting, of course, with the mother.