Shortly after I published my own post on the media response to Boston bombing suspects’ Muslim heritage, another article about the suspects’ background began to go viral. The article, written by Sarah Kendzior for Al Jazeera, focuses in on the media’s treatment of the Tsarnaev brothers’ Chechen heritage.
First, let’s start with a little background. The two bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are of Chechen descent – their family comes from the Chechnya region of southern Russia, located in the Caucasus mountains. The region tried to gain independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, during the communist state’s collapse. Rebel groups from the area waged a bloody battle against the Russian army in this effort, and the region remains unstable and (according to the US and Russian governments) susceptible to terrorist influences to this day.
Ultimately, the link between the suspects and their Chechen heritage seems relatively weak: while one of the suspects’ social networking sites linked to websites supporting Chechen independence, both suspects grew up in the United States and had no discernible ties to Chechnya or Russia.
This brings us to Kendzior’s article for Al Jazeera, which notes that the lack of connection between the Tsarnaev brothers and their Chechen heritage did not stop the media from playing up that particular angle of their story:
Despite the Tsarnaevs’ American upbringing, the media has presented their lives through a Chechen lens. Political strife in the North Caucasus, ignored by the press for years, has become the default rationale for a domestic crime.
This is an important point to consider, particularly in light of the countless other media generalizations and gaffes surrounding this story. Yet Kendzior’s most interesting point takes a slightly different angle:
Later that Thursday, the FBI released photos of two young men wearing baseball caps – men who so resembled all-American frat boys that people joked they would be the target of “racial bro-filing.” The men were Caucasian, so the speculation turned away from foreign terror and toward the excuses routinely made for white men who kill: mental illness, anti-government grudges, frustrations at home. The men were white and Caucasian – until the next day, when they became the wrong kind of Caucasian, and suddenly they were not so “white” after all.
This is an absolutely fascinating point, and one that really exemplifies the power of geographic context in our conception of race. When the Boston bombing suspects were identified as being white, our entire perception of their crime and potential motives changed. In that moment, we moved from the baseline, Islamic fundamentalist narrative towards the type of narrative that characterized shootings by white American men in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut.
Yet, when the two white men who perpetuated the bombing crime were identified as being from a strife-ridden part of Eastern Europe, the narrative changed once again. The media used the suspects’ Chechen heritage as a way to frame their crime, drawing on any links between the suspects and their heritage to paint a picture of men who were foreign, disconnected, and decidedly un-American. It did not matter that the suspects spent most of their lives in America or that one of them was an American citizen – it would be much easier for the press to give us the more logical narrative.
But again, underlying the production of this narrative is the innate link between our perception of race and our notion of geographic space. The Tsarnaev brothers and their narrative will inevitably be forged by both their whiteness and their presupposed connection to Chechnya.