Thursday, April 25, 2013

Some thoughts in response to the Boston bombings

Barely a week after the Boston bombings is too early to respond to the Boston bombings in detail. Only time will provide the necessary perspective. There is still much indeed that we need to learn about what happened there, where three people died and more than 250 were injured, yet some things are already becoming clear.

Much has been written about the resilience of the people of Boston. They handled themselves very well not only in the hours immediately after the bombings but also during the lock-down, when the entire city was told to stay at home so the the remaining brother of the two who were suspected of placing the bombs could be captured, after a killing rampage that left the older brother and an MIT policeman dead.

The police also acquitted themselves professionally. After first clearing the bomb site, they surveyed hours of surveillance tapes to find picture of the suspects. These cameras proved very useful this time, thus no one in Boston asked any questions about invasion of privacy. Only now are people beginning to raise such issues.

But the media, especially the cable channels, did not do a very good job in reporting this developing story. In order to fill up airtime, networks found what they thought were the real suspects and broadcast this as hard news, only to be upstaged when the police produced photos of the two brothers. The final drama, which could have come from a TV series, led to the death of the older brother and the capture of the younger one.

There are still many unanswered questions about the two suspects. We know very little about their motives, except that the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, visited Dagestan, where he apparently became radicalized. Later, at the prompting of the Russians, the FBI  investigated him, but then let him go. There are numerous questions now about how thorough that investigation was and what the FBI did discover.

According to reports, the younger brother, Dzhokhar, admitted his role in the bombings even before he was read his Miranda rights. He was also, apparently, unarmed when he was captured. Thus further questions arise: How did he get his injuries? And were the police in any way responsible?

That these brothers are Muslims only feeds the equation of terrorism and Islam that prevails widely in the US and the Islamophobia that is found not only in the US but in many other Western countries as well. Most Muslims emphatically deny any connection between their faith and such terrorism, as they should.

We do Muslims a great disservice when we blame all Muslims for the wrongdoings of a handful who display a distorted understanding of their faith. If you are a Christian, would you want others to blame your faith for what a few so-called Christians have done in the past? No religion is without extremists.

How have many Americans reacted? With patriotic fervor and song, mixed with disbelief that this could have happened in their country. As The Economist philosophizes, "Bad things can happen even to a good country."  Americans also find it very difficult to accept that the Boston bombings were an act of terrorism perpetrated by home-grown people who are residents or even citizens of the US.

Prosecutors at first contemplated not reading his Miranda rights to the younger brother who is a citizen. He has now been read his rights and indicted for many crimes, but the fact that they even thought that they could deny him the rights that every citizen has speaks volumes about the perceived threat that the bombings posed to most Americans. They value liberty above all, yet they seem willing to sacrifice some of these liberties, at least temporarily, for the sake of security. Yet liberty remains their fundamental and paramount value.

This attitude is evident as well in their acceptance of surveillance cameras. In times of crisis, Americans can accept what they ordinarily would not. They might excuse their behavior by explaining that security cameras and the denial of basic rights are intended for other people, and not for them. Their love of freedom, which they understand as personal or individual freedom, remains central.

That love of freedom helps to explain why the American public, which according to polls, supported the new gun-control legislation, allowed the Senate to block the measure. This was due not only to the deceitful role played by the NRA but even more to the desire of Americans to protect a basic freedom that they regard as constitutional instead of opting for the greater security offered through gun-control.

The right of every person to bear arms is indeed enshrined in the Constitution. The US Supreme Court has confirmed that, although mistakenly in my opinion, since that is not what the Founding Fathers intended. They ascribed this right to a militia, not to individuals. But who am I to argue with the Supreme Court justices? Such deeply entrenched individualism is hard to uproot.

Canada faces similar problems, as the revelation of a plot, supposedly engineered by al-Qaeda, to derail a train bound from Toronto to New York City. Yet this similarity should not be exaggerated. There is a basic difference between the US and Canada. The latter does not have the same history of playing policeman for the entire world, which has been widely perceived as arrogance, and not only by Islamist extremists. Many people all over the world agree with this sentiment, but they just won't resort to violence to make their point.

What many Americans often overlook is that violence breeds violence. America is a violent society. This is evident on American streets and, just as important, on TV, where violence is idolized. Martin Luther King Jr. has written sagely: "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it."

American foreign policy is oppressive and tends to generate a negative response. Canadian foreign policy, under the Harper government, largely echoes the American one, but without the same oppressiveness, since that is not part of the Canadian nature. Yet Canada too has in the past declared war on other countries, as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Canada had no business being, except in response to US urging.

I may seem to have digressed from the Boston bombings to gun-control, violence, and US foreign policy, but  they are all connected. There are already indications that the Boston bombers, as I already suspected, were motivated by American foreign policy, specifically the wars the US has waged against Muslim countries. This is home-bred terrorism, since it was caused by men who lived in the US for many years. That makes it even more difficult for the US to protect itself. These were not foreign terrorists who had somehow slipped into the country, but they were boys who had attended American high schools.

In fact, the best way for the US to protect itself is to introduce a new foreign policy that accents peace rather than war and conveys strength in a non-violent way. The US must change its attitude to violence in every aspect of its society. The US has many strengths, but also some significant weaknesses. Both strengths and weaknesses were revealed by the Boston bombings and its aftermath.

Here I offer only a few thoughts that were prompted by the bombings for your perusal and response. Please feel free to comment. I want to conclude by again praising the resilience of the people of Boston and the hope that they express in the name of all Americans.


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