As news outlets reported late last week that the Boston bombing suspects were of Chechen-Muslim descent, many readers (on Twitter and in my emailbox) asked whether I was sad, because I had expressed my hope that it would be a white American. These questions have been posed in grotesquely gleeful fashion, as if the alleged demographic profile of the suspects, unto itself, is some sort of victory.
My answer to the question about sadness should be self-evident: yes, of course I am sad, and if you aren't sad, you have no soul or aren't paying attention. That's because it should be sad to anyone to see a city terrorized into lockdown mode and Americans maimed and killed. That's a tragedy for the victims, sad for Boston, sad for America and sad for whole communities who are already being persecuted for the actions of individuals.
As I wrote in my syndicated newspaper column yesterday, there are no definitive answers to something as horrible as all that. But there are huge questions. Here are three to ponder at the end of an awful week:
1. Why did so many conservatives seem to want the suspects to be foreign-born Muslims?
My twitter feed and email box is a display of sheer unadulterated glee from conservatives celebrating the fact that the two suspects are allegedly immigrants of Muslim descent. These conservatives are overjoyed that my hopes of the opposite did not come true. By obvious logic, then, they were hoping that the assailants ended up being anything but white non-Islamic Americans. Simple question: Why?
This week, I made a very clear case about why I hoped (though certainly never predicted) the assailants ended up being non-Islamic white Americans. Simply put, I held those hopes because history shows that when terrorism suspects are non-white, foreign or Islamic - and in particular, the latter - we have witnessed an overreaction involving everything from preemptive wars to curtailed civil liberties to a serious increase in hate crimes against groups that are collectively blamed, to polls showing a rise in bigotry to a spate of violent attacks on targeted religions to an increase in workplace discrimination against targeted minority groups. By contrast, when terrorism suspects are non-Islamic white American males (as many are), our governmental and cultural response tends to be more measured and (to say the least) less willing to demonize whole groups of innocent people.
Because of this, and because of the fact that the suspects had to be of some race/religion/ethnicity, I hoped for the former not the latter. I didn't - and still don't - want to see the kind of destructive and bigoted overreaction we've too often seen. It's pretty simple.
Of course, now that the suspects are alleged to be Muslim, we will see if America follows the same historical path that we have before - one involving mass surveillance of whole religious communities, hate crimes, new Patriot Acts and calls for other punitive measures. Rush Limbaugh insists that we won't see such a response - and I sincerely hope he is right.
But events suggest history may already be repeat itself. Indeed, in the last few days, we've seen reports of hate crimes against Muslims (before the suspects were identified, by the way) ; Homeland Security Committee chairman Rep. Peter King (R-NY) call for mass surveillance of all Muslims; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) demand that the suspect - an American citizen - be deemed an enemy combatant and denied due process; the Obama administration deny Miranda rights to the suspect; and New York State Sen. Greg Ball (R) call for the use of torture. Notably, these kinds of affronts to civil liberties and the constitution are almost never seen when terrorism suspects are white non-Islamic Americans.
All of this underscores my argument about why I had hoped the suspects ended up being white non-Islamic Americans. It also begs the aforementioned question: knowing the differences in how we react to Muslim terrorism and non-Islamic white American terrorism, why are so many conservatives gleefully cheering the possibility that the suspects are the former? Could it be that some Americans actually want to see the kind of bigoted, violent, civil-liberties-trampling reaction we tend to see when terrorism suspects end up being Muslim?
2. Will the Boston response finally change America's posture toward public employees?
In the last few years, bashing public employees has become a cause célèbre on the American right, with Republican politicians regularly berating them as "a new privileged class" and conservative media and activists labeling them "greedy" "overpaid" leeches who are trying to "bankrupt America."
But the heroic response from first responders in Boston, and the miraculous way they limited casualties, is a not-so-subtle reminder that our public employees - whether first responders, police officers or soldiers - are most often heroes.
In that sense, Boston should be a turning point. After all, we as a country cannot at once laud the effectiveness of the public employees courageously providing emergency response while also continuing to rail on those public employees, portray them as greedy overpaid leeches, and berate the taxes that pay their salaries. Will one of the silver linings of the otherwise awful events in Boston be a change in the politics of public services? Will, in short, we finally start treating our public employees with the respect they so obviously deserve?
3. Does 24-7 news and technology make us more safe or less safe?
The ubiquity of digital recording technology - whether the cell phone or the surveillance camera - has clearly helped authorities track down the suspects. And communications technology - whether the smartphone, Twitter, email or 24-7 news coverage - has helped disseminate crucial information to the public in the aftermath of the attack and during this terrifying manhunt. That's all to the good.
However, those same technologies also ended up disseminating false information - including the kind that smeared a college kid. Additionally, they threaten to intensify what security expert Bruce Schneier calls' terrorism's "crime against the mind."
Basically, because technology and the 24-7 news cycle allows events to be so amplified in real time in a way they never have been before, the terrorizing effect of those events is far bigger. Whereas in previous eras Americans might read about a terrorist attack in a different city or perhaps see a still life image or two, this is the first generation in history that televisually experiences terrorism in real time, regardless of whether we are actually in the community affected. Indeed, whether on Facebook, Twitter or on the old TV screen, we are bombarded with video of the attacks and the carnage and now real-time video of the manhunt, allowing the terrorist attack to psychologically harm not merely those in the community being assaulted, but to also inflict such harm on the entire nation (if not the world).
The net effect is a technologized world that allows a terrorist attack to create a much bigger psychological blast zone than ever before. And that is a powerful incentive for all kinds of terrorists (whether "lone wolf" or organized) to try to pull off ever-more high-profile attacks.
Is there any way to at once maximize the aforementioned upsides of 21st century technology and the 24-7 news cycle while also minimizing the obvious downsides of this Information Age revolution? These answers will help determine the kind of country we call home.