Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was shot and killed in a standoff with police early this morning. His brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, remains on the run. One of the largest manhunts in U.S. history is currently underway. (You can read more about the young men at the Boston Globe and New York Times.)
Early reports indicate that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were originally from Chechnya, a federal subject of Russia. They spent time in Kyrgyzstan (Central Asia) and Dagestan, another republic under Russian jurisdiction, before immigrating to the United States in the early 2000s. By most accounts, both young men were good students who contributed to their community through sports. Tamerlan was a talented boxer who, friends have said, hoped to represent the United States in the Olympics.
This creates a bit of a challenge for mainstream media outlets like CNN, whose reporters have been struggling to meet audience demands for a familiar narrative (domestic white supremacists or foreign-trained Islamists, for example, with an obvious inclination towards the latter).
The problem is, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar don’t fit into any simple paradigm.
Mounting evidence suggests they were exploring an extreme version of Islam. And both Chechnya and Dagestan are majority-Muslim areas with histories of brutal oppression. (Here, readers are encouraged to click over to the Washington Post’s “9 questions about Chechnya and Dagestan you were too embarrassed to ask.” It should also be noted there’s yet to emerge any actual link between the attackers' motivations and their ethnic origin.) But the Tsarnaev family reportedly left the troubled Caucuses region when Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were relatively young. Descriptions provided by friends paint a picture of a couple of normal kids who, as reported by the Boston Globe, “appeared to embody the best of the American immigrant experience.”
It’s unlikely that anything simple will emerge to explain what led these men to attack civilians in the city they themselves had made their home. But the religious angle will no doubt receive significant attention, and that will have negative consequences for a very long time.
As reported by Al Jazeera English, the attack that killed three people and badly injured dozens more not only caused a panic in the United States, it also sent a shiver through the Muslim world and communities of generally dark-skinned people around the planet.
In an op-ed titled, “Please don't be Arabs or Muslims,” Khaled A Beydoun, a teacher of race studies at the UCLA School of Law, wrote: “I instantly thought of my friend who ran the Marathon upon learning of the explosions. However, concern for loved ones was superseded by a distinctly Arab and Muslim-American psychosis: 'Please do not let the culprit be Arab or Muslim.'"
Shortly after the explosions in Boston, the New York Post reported that a Saudi national was detained and being questioned by the FBI. Much of the Post’s coverage was quickly debunked as false, and it turned out that the teenager in question was actually one of the attack's many victims. (The New York Post also wrongly reported that nine people were killed in the twin bombings, and stuck with that number long into the evening.)
Those articles inspired a brilliant piece of satire from the writers at the Onion, which ran with the headline, “This Is A Tragedy—Does It Really Matter Exactly How Many People Died Or What Any Of The Details Are?,” as well as a more-reflective essay at the New Yorker.
An award-winning playwright named Wajahat Ali summed the whole mess up nicely, writing, "The Saudi 'suspect' fiasco teaches 'Muslimy' folks to run away from lifethreatening explosions in a calm, friendly, non suspicious manner."