Hide Your Children, Hide Your Family, Hide Your Mother

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.

  • Captain DG

    “There is no abnormality here[.]” If the author had put this sentence at the beginning instead of at the end I could have skipped the whole thing. What has this family wrought but abnormality? We are not a sworn jury. We are not bound to withhold judgement as if willfully ignorant. We see the bombs going off. We know the suspects implicated themselves to the man they carjacked. We know the mother is full of crazy beliefs about 9/11 and the “paint” that is really blood on the streets of Boston. But then, the blood is just paint until a jury tells us so. The nutty thoughts of the mother are sadly, perfectly normal in some predictable parts of the world. Only the uncle is looked down upon and for what? Defaming who should be defamed.

    • Chris

      I had a similar reaction to the article’s mentioning of the uncle. That pained man, with some degree of certainty recognizing already previously troubled family members on video footage on the site of a hideous crime on live tv, to me displayed decency. He seemed genuinely ashamed what family members (he may have disliked before) may have done to fellow human beings.

      When I heard him speak on tv, I did not have the association of an appeaser, someone who assimilates to majority thinking, as the author seems to have. I actually thought this could be a brilliant opportunity to make Westerners understand there is a Muslim man or at least a man of Muslim cultural heritage, who is deeply ashamed of potential terror attacks not only by other Muslims, but by members of his own family.

      That man to me, as I said, displayed decency. I do not see decency in the mother’s acts. If you have some strong hints your sons may indeed have been engaged in violent crime (not least by the manner one died, in a shootout with police forces), by all means in your heart hope your sons are innocent, and say so if you wish. But keep up some decency in your choice of words. These choices of hers, her completely apologetic attitude , and the audacity of presenting her sons as “victims” when there is evidence they at least shot and kidnapped are more responsible for her public flaming than a mere mother’s belief in her sons’ innocence, in my opinion.

  • Christine

    To the above comment, I believe you’ve just proved the author correct with your statement. But before continuing it might be valuable for you to look up the Fifth Amendment, the biographies of Assata Shakur, Yuri Kochiyama, and Angela Davis, the history of Japanese internment camps in California, the current reports on torture victims in Guantanamo Bay (and who is being targeted as prisoners for that prison) and to follow the links cited in the actual article about the federal government’s involvement in so-called “homegrown terrorism” plots. Whether the suspects are the perpetrators or not has not yet been determined by any thorough, systematic analysis of available evidence. What it seems the author is saying, however, is to suspend judgement based on media “facts” geared towards whipping people up into a panicked frenzy and rather demand transparency in all dealings with suspects of crimes, as it is laid out for people to do in the U.S. Constitution.

  • Chris

    “(and until there is a hearing and a legal verdict they remain suspects and only suspects)”

    This is not just a case where people have been imprisoned, and could – or could not – be completely innocent. If the Saudi man, who may have been unfairly put under a form of detention/observation in hospital judging from some news reports, had been brought to prison after his hospital treatment, I would have been with you entirely. The only evidence publically available would be his nationality, and that would sound an awful lot like hysterical ethnic profiling in the aftermath of a traumatic incident.

    However, as for the Tsarnaevs, we know from reputed media outlets, which, granted, are subject to certain biases, but to most people carry a certain reliability as far as reporting of hard facts is concerned, that a policeman pursuing the Tsarnaevs lost his life to gunshots, that these two brothers fired at police and one of them got killed in the fire, the other most likely tried to kill himself with a self-inflicted shot. Maybe it is because I have not grown up in a weapon-crazy country, but to me there is a difference in the appearance of innocence between a man who is arrested and awaiting his trial, denying charges, and a man who fired rounds of gunshots at police in uniform. While the latter may still be innocent of a concrete crime he is charged with, there is no doubt that he has become a criminal willing to take lives by indiscriminately firing at people in uniform doing their job, risking passerby lives also. And of course firing at police to get away casts a certain shadow over one’s innocence also for the concrete crime one is to be charged with.

    Also a mother defending her son who was “simply” imprisoned and denies charges is quite different from a mother defending her son who has fired rounds of gunshots at authorities, in an urban area. For the first, most people would understand her bias even if her son looks awfully guilty. For the latter, she should speak her mind as she pleases, but then will need to respect other people’s freedom of disagreeing with her mindset, and a highly offensive mindset to many on top of that (that is, to defend a man as innocent who has fired at police, which is a crime in itself, whether he is a bomber or not).

    For this reason I do not agree with your criticism of this person’s portrayal in the media at all. There surely are more unfairly negatively portrayed individuals, not least the older Tsarnaev brother’s wife, who has not spoken her mind in defence of two brothers who quite evidently are cop murderers or attempted cop murderers.

  • Chris

    And to add a criminal law perspective to the columnist’s quote you countered with a sarcastic reply of “be afraid (of the mother)”: That author says when you witness a loved one prepare criminal activity, you have a duty to intervene, otherwise you carry responsibility yourself. At least in the legal system I grew up in, that is nothing short of true, actually an understatement. Every person, also a mother, who gains knowledge of future criminal activity of someone, even their own son, will be charged with complicity, hence has committed a crime herself by not intervening (a “lesser” crime than the immediate perpetrator if you wish); dogmatically, this is called a “psychological support/contribution” by refraining from stopping them (hence making them think what they intend is “right” or “justified”). There are some rights to close relatives, like they are released from their duty to give testimony under oath against their family member under certain circumstances. But they carry equal legal obligation to prevent crime as every other person at least in my country. So I do not quite understand what you object to in that statement. Granted, this legal obligation puts the good of society over the good of your own family in a way (although you could say by calling police upon your child before they murder someone is saving the child in a way, also, because attempted murder will never get them as severe a punishment as murder, not to speak of carrying the burden of such a crime on one’s conscience or soul).

    I guess I do not understand the sarcastic response to something I consider to be true on a factual basis, and completely right on a moral basis.