More than a month has passed since two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, but the fear and anti-Muslim fervor generated by the attack continues to ripple through the United States.
While working at Simmons College, I witnessed the effects of both the attack and the Islamophobic backlash on my students. One student was 30 feet from one of the explosions. Another, a Muslim, was a block away and had to endure anti-Muslim tirades by her co-workers in the days and now weeks following. Another student was part of the mosque one of the Tsarnaev brothers occasionally attended and knows personally the innocent Muslim young man who was tackled by bystanders in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. Yet another, a nursing major, spent that day pulling nails and other shrapnel out of the arms and legs of small children. At the time I was teaching a course on race and social media. My students and I watched in awe (and dismay) as social media sites from Twitter to Reddit and Facebook became inundated with speculation, accusations, unfounded theories, and explicit hate-mongering, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Islamic vitriol.
The Boston Marathon bombings did also bring out the best in people – the first-responders who ran towards the danger, not away from it, in order to help people. Marathon runners who went immediately to hospitals to donate blood. Civilians making tourniquets from their own clothing. Unfortunately for me, and for many of my young students, the overwhelming attitude now present in Boston is fear. Although the Tsarnaev brothers are no longer a danger, the damage done by their actions extends far beyond the carnage of one day.
Even before the brothers were identified, anti-Muslim fervor incited a man to accost a Muslim woman in the Boston suburb of Malden. Online, the hate is everywhere. All Muslims are terrorists; all terrorists are Muslims is the prevailing sentiment. The religious intolerance and ignorance has been folded into our already-xenophobic attitude towards immigrants. In this case, the immigration and citizenship status of the Tsarnaev family is held as a justification for closing our borders, denying entry of any Muslims (or suspected Muslims), and possible deportations of Muslims already living in the U.S. This is the only way, nativists claim, to protect ourselves from the blood-thirsty hoards of Islamic jihadists.
We have been here before. After 9/11 the same attitudes were expressed. We went to war. We rounded up people and put them in Guantánamo. We deported. We wiretapped. We started monitoring what books people check out of the library. We installed ever-increasing security measures at airports. Now, anyone with a backpack is given a sideways glance. In a college city like Boston, this is an incredible problem. A college student’s backpack left accidentally in a cafeteria recently caused all of the Simmons College campus security officers to respond.
But we have another issue. I remember after 9/11 the American public had to be educated about the Middle East. Those of us old enough to remember the first Gulf War had some understanding of the region. Most young people had no idea. Even today, our understanding of the region is precarious at best. One of my students actually asked me the other day if Iraq and Afghanistan are different countries. Seriously. She was six years old when the Twin Towers fell. We have been at war most of her life. War is so ubiquitous that she didn’t even realize we were at war. This is the world she lives in. We engage in vague wars against “terror” in places we don’t know much about, against a religion our Christian leaders don’t understand.
The Tsarnaevs are ethnic Chechens. Just as non-Muslims in the United States felt they were getting a handle on Islam (read: Arabs), they discover that all Muslims aren’t even Arab. This has come as a shock to a great many people in the U.S. And virtually no one seems to know anything beyond stereotypes about Chechnya. The problem is bad enough that the embassy of the Czech Republic had to issue a statement explaining that Chechnya and the Czech Republic are, in fact, different countries. We also can’t seem to figure out the (albeit complicated) relationship between Russia and Chechnya.
The Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath have given justification and a specific event around which white nativists can rally. Those people who call for a return to “traditional American values” and want to bring back “the America we grew up in” now point to Boston as a sign of just how far away we have strayed from the supposedly safe America of the 1950s. Of course the 1950s was also a time in which people built fallout shelters in their backyards, black people were beaten – on television – by police, women died from back-alley abortions and LGBTQ people had to hide their identities. Shifting demographics since the 1960s has put white men on the defensive. They have become the new “minority” and now claim status as a persecuted constituency. Obama has been the target of their ire and angst for more than six years. Many people now claim the marathon bombings are a clear sign that Americanness (read: whiteness) is under attack. This includes claiming Obama knew of the plans for the bombing. Or tying the event to the need for an armed-to-the-teeth citizenry – which, of course, is then tied to the idea that Obama is trying to “take away” everyone’s right to bear arms.
However, this is different and more frightening than the secret-Muslim conspiracy theories or disbelief that Obama was really born in the United States, which we have been hearing for years. Hatred of Obama and the racism against him are disgusting and disrespectful of the office of the presidency. But Obama is one man. He is ineligible for reelection. He will cease to be president and people will move on. Like anti-black racism, anti-Islam prejudice and the attendant xenophobia and violence against Muslims (and those perceived as Muslim) are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Entrenchment of nativist thinking in the form of deportations, incarcerations, border violence, wars and even the dismantling of ethnic studies programs is doing more to damage our nation than any policy Obama may or may not enact. At precisely the moment when we should be learning more about the world – via classrooms and person-to-person contact – we are retreating inwards, building walls and willfully maintaining our ignorance and U.S.-centric arrogance.
The fact that many of my students don’t want to pay attention to our foreign policies, that they cannot locate Iraq on a map, that they don’t know the difference between Saudis, Iranians and Chechens is understandable. We are teaching them – by not teaching them – that none of these things are important. “All Arabs are Muslims; all Muslims are terrorists”—that is all they need to know, we tell them in many ways. They go online and are faced with so much misinformation that they choose to ignore all information. Distinguishing fact from fiction is just too difficult and watching videos of cats chasing ducklings around kitchens or goats singing Taylor Swift songs is much more fun.
But then they go to a marathon to cheer their friend over the finish line and almost get blown up. And suddenly their citizenship matters, the color of their skin matters, whether they wear a hijab or not matters. Their identities are suddenly and violently all that stands between them and whether they are perceived as victim or criminal. Although I can guarantee that they know nothing of the history of “identity politics” they have to live with the hegemonic incorporation of such politics in their daily lives.