When Daniel Falcone interviewed Lawrence Davidon, the Boston bombing was nearly a month old and news sources still speculating on what the event means for American security, White House politics, domestic violence and terrorism in general. The bombing came during the same week as a Texas fertilizer plant near Waco exploded and an abandoned U-Haul truck was found in Oklahoma City. Boston received a great deal of coverage when compared to other national and global events and one focus of that coverage was how to contextualize the suspects. An underreported facet of the suspects’ profile was articulated by their uncle who remarked, “You put a shame on our entire family and you put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity.” When asked what provoked the bombing suspects, the uncle stated: “Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves, these are the only reasons I can imagine. Anything else, anything else to do with religion, with Islam, is a fraud, is a fake,” he said. Were they acting as Muslim extremists or were they disgruntled Americans who needed to find a focus for their anger? Falcone spoke with Lawrence Davidson, Professor of Middle East Studies from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Davidson has written several books and articles on the Near East and contemporary issues. He has authored Islamic Fundamentalism and Cultural Genocide.
Falcone: In 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing had the news media speculating on Middle Eastern terror sources. Much of the same occurred in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. And, as with Oklahoma City, the bombers were white Americans. What is the significance of this in your view?
Davidson: National perception is created and manipulated by custom and tradition on the one hand and media bias on the other. When it comes to “enemies,” Islam in general and the Arabs in particular, have replaced the traditional communists and the Soviet Union. This transference was facilitated by the nation’s historical Judeo-Christian orientation (this is the custom and tradition part) and a media that is influenced, and in some cases controlled, by an array of pro-Zionist special interests (both Christian and Jewish). Thus, Islamophobic, anti-Arab and pro-Israel sentiments are easily manufactured and sustained. As a consequence, when something negative happens, such as a terrorist episode, the default assumption of much of the media, and thus much of the public, is going to be that there is a Middle Eastern connection. The 9/11 attacks cemented this connection.
It is interesting that, as deadly as 9/11 was, the data do not back up the default assumption that terrorism comes from Muslim sources. Most terror attacks in this country are perpetrated by radical animal rights and environmental groups. And, of course, most violence in the country is not of a classical terrorist nature, but rather is the function of a nation awash in guns. But reality is not what drives the perceptions and emotions of the public in this regard. It is manipulated information coming from the media and government.
Falcone: From the leftist perspective, President Obama does not have a good record in regard to civil liberties or foreign policy. Also, the right-wing media is attempting to make both the President and lead officials appear dovish in light of American security. Has our image changed at all overseas when compared to the Bush administration?
Davidson: Psychologically, President Obama’s policies have further hurt the US image in the Muslim world. This is so despite the withdrawal from Iraq and the promised partial withdrawal from Afghanistan.
When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims empathized with the citizens of the United States. President Bush and his neoconservative advisers disregarded the worth of that empathy and made no effort to capitalize on it. Instead, they squandered all that good will by pursuing the impossible goal of recreating the governments of the Middle East and using them as weapons to destroy Islamic fundamentalism, which they incorrectly believed to be the root cause of the attacks.
When the US voting public replaced Bush with Barack Obama, there was another moment of great goodwill towards the United States. Electing the first African American president seemed to renew the faith of a lot of foreign observers in the potential for new progressive policies coming out of Washington.
Yet, once more, hopes were dashed as Obama swore fidelity to Israel, vetoed Palestinian moves at the UN, and clearly showed his intent to increase drone warfare even as he reduced the number of troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What Arabs and Muslims are coming to realize is that US behavior is not just the function of who is president. Policy is the product of a system and that system is presently controlled by networks of special interests inimical to the Arabs and Muslims and allied to the Israelis. Until these networks can be overcome, or at least successfully competed with, the national image in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate.
Falcone: Many Americans from now on will associate the Chechen people with the Boston tragedy. How has the media created or contributed to this?
Davidson: I don’t think that most Americans know what Chechnya is, much less where it is. The name is a momentary blip on the landscape of terrorist related consciousness evolving in the collective American mind. The notion that these two young men were “Muslim” (neither was really devout) and from some vague Muslim foreign land will stay in the national consciousness, Chechnya specifically will not. By the way, the other thing that will have no staying power in the public mind is that the main motivation for the attack was, apparently, revenge for US foreign policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Falcone: What are the problems involved in classifying acts of terrorism?
Davidson: It is very hard to come up with a definitive definition and/or classification of terrorism. The US government has five or six definitions depending on which agency website you look at. In terms of classification, I guess you could break the tactic that is terrorism into two kinds based on who the perpetrators are: state actors or non-state actors. Official government definitions leave out the former possibility.
How all of this is presented to the citizenry is, of course, a matter of the manipulation of public opinion by both the perpetrators of the terrorist act and those responding to it. Many “experts” on terrorism claim that it is first and foremost a public relations act and therefore exists only because of the media attention it gets. I think there is something to this, but we have to be aware that there are multiple audiences. Certainly the non-state terrorist may well seek to change the policies of their state enemies by impacting the opinion of the enemy state’s citizens. This is particularly true if the enemy state is a democracy. On the other hand, much terrorism is carried out as acts of revenge and in this case the main audience is not that of the enemy’s population, but one’s own people who might take solace and hope from the act of retaliation. State terror when carried out against enemy terrorists can also be acts of revenge where the audience is the home front citizenry.
Falcone: In your view, were Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, part of Middle East extremism or were they caricatures of the extremism?
Davidson: The Tsarnaev brothers were produced by their environments, first in Chechnya and then in the US – in both cases quite violent societies. That, no doubt, made it easier for them to conceive of their violent actions in the first place. The seemingly, often random, way the US projects violence onto innocent people in foreign lands probably made it seem justifiable to them to kill and maim randomly here in the US.
I think it is important to understand that US policies such as sanctions, drones and ultimately the helter-skelter nature of invasions result in immense numbers of dead and injured non-combatants who appear to be victimized randomly. This creates a horrible precedent that ultimately comes full circle in the form of revenge and retribution. The innocent victims of the Twin Towers and the Boston Marathon, among others, stand as testimony to this fact.
Falcone: We have seen obscene violence perpetrated by other white males in America in recent school shootings, a movie theater shooting, a mall shooting, etc. Racial or religious connections are never made when investigating non-Muslim suspects. Is this intentional in your opinion? Has any hint of “Muslim background” become shorthand for terror in our media system?
Davidson: Yes, I think it is an intentional action. There are probably multiple reasons for it, not all of them racist manifestations of the neoconservative worldview. For instance, media condemnation of the massacres in schools, theaters, malls, etc. usually has to be kept within the boundaries acceptable to the NRA gun lobby. Media corporations risk losing advertisers and viewers if they do otherwise. There is almost certainly an in-group vs. out-group phenomenon here as well. Muslims have always been considered as a real or potential out-group by most Americans, and this allows for an easy separation into different categories of the violence of anyone with a Muslim connection and the white males who are responsible for so much domestic violence. Finally, radical conservative (these are the neocons) media outlets such as Fox and the Murdoch chain of papers are ideologically driven to see Muslims as, if you will, “civilizational threats.” The white man’s gun violence probably registers on their radar as episodes of little long range interest.
Within this milieu, Muslim or Islam does become shorthand for terrorist or terrorism and, no doubt, that is the intention of the neoconservative ideologues. Too many Americans accept this connection because the media description of Muslims is the only informational context they have for events. It is not that Americans are stupid as much as they are ignorant. The behavior of some people in Boston, who reacted as if the younger Tsarnaev brother was a Muslim foreigner, (chanting USA! USA! Upon his capture) rather than a naturalized citizen horribly alienated by the violence of US foreign policy, is an indicator that this unfortunate connection has taken hold.
Falcone: Is the Boston bombing indicative of any flaws in our immigration policy, national security system or our overall so called, “War on Terror?” This is certainly an angle played up by right-wing media.
Davidson: I don’t know if there was some sort of problem at the FBI level. All we have are sketchy reports about the Russians calling attention to the brothers, and an FBI interview process with them that appeared to indicate nothing amiss. Whatever the radical right says, it is really impossible to effectively screen every immigrant that comes into the country. As the gun problem shows, we can’t even effectively screen all gun purchasers for potential violence.
In any case, the potential for violence is just one part of the issue. There has to be a motive and a means to express the violence. The US supplies an abundant amount of both. Bombs are easily made; guns are readily available and life in the “land of the free” seems to provide a great number of frustrations and tribulations ranging from the daily domestic level (domestic violence is a real problem in this country) to the foreign policy abuses that place half the planet at jeopardy.
The United States government cannot insulate its citizens from the consequences of its own foreign policies. There will always be blow-back. That is why a major part of the so-called “war on terror” has to be a publicly conducted review of and debate on our foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East. Unless this is done we will remain stuck in a rut and our own violent behavior will come full circle. Our own government is condemning us to continued violence in the form of revenge and retribution.