The explosions that tore through the lives of so many innocent people in Boston on April 15 understandably shocked people across the country. Americans have little direct experience of such horrors, but in other parts of the world people live in constant fear of indiscriminate bombings. They are subjected, not only to crude homemade devices like the pressure-cookers packed with gun powder and nails that were used in Boston, but to the highest-tech weaponry unleashed by powerful states, first and foremost by the United States.
Little more than a week before the Boston bombing, for example, twelve children were among those killed when their village in Afghanistan was hit by missiles fired from an American drone aircraft, the third time that week that drone attacks claimed the lives of scores of civilians in that country. Thousands have been killed by such strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines, including follow-up strikes against rescue workers responding to previous strikes; even funerals for the dead have been targeted.
A growing number of Americans are coming to realize the hypocrisy of the rulers of this country, who claim to be fighting a “war on terror” with military occupations and terroristic methods like drone attacks that kill combatants and civilians alike. The perpetrators of the bombing in Boston, however, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, almost certainly were aware of this slaughter. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, while bleeding from police gunshot wounds and expecting to die, reportedly scrawled on the side of the boat he was hiding in an explanation of their act:
“The bombings were in retribution for the U.S. crimes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan … [and] the victims of the Boston bombing were collateral damage, the same way innocent victims have been collateral damage in U.S. wars around the world. Summing up that, when you attack one Muslim you attack all Muslims.”
If this report is confirmed, it would make the Boston bombing the most recent of several attacks by young Muslims in the U.S. purporting to avenge Washington’s “war on terror.” It follows the thwarted plan to bomb the New York subway system in 2008, the shooting of 13 members of the U.S. military by a Muslim serviceman at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009 and the planting of a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square in 2010.
Attacks targeting innocent civilians are inexcusable coming from either side. But the powers-that-be in this country don’t care about this elemental truth. At a White House press conference the day after the Boston attack, the U.S. Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama, said: “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror.” Such blatant hypocrisy normally goes unquestioned by the American press. In this case, however, a reporter on her first day on the job in the White House, Amina Ismail of McClatchy News, dared to challenge the President’s spokesman Jay Carney:
“I send my deepest condolences to the victims and families in Boston, but President Obama said that what happened in Boston was an act of terrorism. I would like to ask: do you consider the U.S. bombing on civilians in Afghanistan earlier this month that left 11 children and a woman killed a form of terrorism? Why or why not?”
A shocked Carney gave a long-winded answer without managing to deny that the U.S. action was terrorism. He referred the journalist to the Department of Defense, which would no doubt provide its standard explanation that the women and children killed were regrettable examples of the inevitable “collateral damage” of wartime. (Where else did Dzhokhar Tsarnayev learn that terrible phrase?) Meanwhile, the rest of America’s corporate news and television media maintained its typical silence on the issue.
President Obama’s contempt for civilians in “third-world” countries is an extension of the everyday racism that this country’s circles of power display at home. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing, politicians and media commentators appealed to people’s worst prejudices, especially the anti-Muslim bigotry that has been so strongly encouraged since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Fox News and the New York Post took the lead in encouraging a lynch-mob atmosphere by publishing pictures of people whose only “crime” was to be of non-white appearance while watching the marathon. News outlets reported baseless rumors that police were targeting their investigation on a “dark-skinned or black male” with a “possible foreign accent.” At various points a Saudi victim of the bombings, a teen-age Moroccan athlete and his coach who were spectators, and even a missing Brown University student, were all falsely identified as suspects.
This bigotry-from-above triggered a new wave of harassment against Arabs and Muslims around the country. Arabic-speaking passengers were removed from passenger flights, and an Arab student faced FBI questioning after his neighbors reported seeing him in possession of a pressure cooker he had cooked rice with. But far more violent attacks followed. In New York, a Bangladeshi man was badly beaten after thugs asked him whether he was Muslim. In Massachusetts a Muslim woman was punched and abused on the street for wearing a veil. In Northern Virginia, a Muslim U.S. Army veteran who was working as a cab driver was viciously attacked by a passenger who accused him of being a terrorist.
The racist and anti-Muslim demagogy whipped up after the Boston bombing builds upon a steady campaign since September 11. Right-wing foundations have funded advertising campaigns against Islam and mobilized protests against the construction of a mosque in downtown Manhattan. These anti-Muslim campaigns have inspired a steady rise in violent assaults on Muslims, with physical assaults and murders continuing to rise in recent years.
The grave threat of these attacks must not be underestimated. It was just last year that a white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and opened fire, killing six people and wounding more. In that case, those killed and injured were the victims of the killer’s homicidal anti-Muslim bigotry as well as his ignorance of the fact that Sikhs are not Muslims.
But the greatest danger to Arabs and Muslims comes not from vigilantes, but from the state. Since September 11, Federal and state police agencies have subjected America’s Muslim and Arab communities to outrageous levels of surveillance, infiltrating their mosques and other community organizations and recording their daily activities. Yet as two reporters recently concluded after an exhaustive investigation:
“In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony unsealed late Monday.”
Drawing out the punitive logic, New York Republican Congressman Peter King declared that police must “realize that the threat is coming from the Muslim community and increase surveillance there. … We can’t be bound by political correctness … I’ve been talking about radicalization of the Muslim community and I think this is an example of it.” U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, widely promoted as a potential presidential candidate, suggested that he would consider barring young foreign Muslims from getting student visas to come the United States. Even Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the top court’s first Latina member, spoke out against avoiding profiling people as would-be terrorists based on their origins: “Is it something you just can't ignore? Maybe sometimes not.”
Various theories have been proposed to justify the bigoted profiling of Muslims and Arabs as suspects. For example, one supposed terrorism “expert,” former CNN reporter Steve Emerson, appeared on several TV programs to insist that right-wing Americans could be eliminated from the list of possible attackers because they use guns in their attacks, not bombs. In reality, most terrorist bombings in this country have been committed by right-wing white Americans – from the Oklahoma City bombing by Gulf War veteran and militia sympathizer Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices that killed 168 people in 1995, to the scores of bombings of women’s health care centers over the years.
Anti-Muslim demagogues would now claim they have been vindicated by the discovery that the Boston bombers were indeed Muslims motivated to commit the bombings by opposition to the U.S. wars. We still know relatively little about the Tsarnayev brothers, however. Their motive could have been a deadly combination of anti-U.S. revenge coupled with the kind of pathological disassociation from society that has led to mass shootings in schools and other public places.
In Boston, in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, courageous civilians and emergency workers saved lives when they chose to run toward the explosions in order to help victims rather than run the other way. They acted on basic instincts of selflessness and caring for fellow human beings that are so easily worn away by daily life in capitalist society. But where normal people saw a terrible tragedy, the cold-blooded cynics who inhabit this country’s circles of power saw an opportunity.
Americans were immediately called on to surrender more of their fundamental rights that supposedly impede the government’s fight against terrorism. For example, NBC News brought out elder statesman Tom Brokaw to pose as a voice of wisdom. “Everyone has to understand,” he pontificated on the night of the bombing, “beginning tomorrow morning early, there are going to be much tougher security considerations all across the country, and however exhausted we may be by that, we're going to have to learn to live with them …” New York City Mayor Bloomberg more bluntly declared the Boston bombing showed that “our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution … have to change.”
The expanded powers of the state over citizens were on full display after the Boston bombing, as the entire Boston metropolitan area was locked down for a day and effectively placed under martial law during the manhunt for the bombers. Roads were blocked and public transportation immobilized. In the neighborhood where the surviving Tsarnayev brother had escaped after a shoot-out with the police, fully armed SWAT teams brandishing machine guns went searching door-to-door while snipers crawled over rooftops.
The lockdown in fact did not work as claimed – Dzhokhar Tsarnayev was discovered only after it ended, when a homeowner left his house and noticed that his boat cover was disarrayed. But for the police it was still a success – as a trial run for shutting a city down in cases of future urban unrest.
Since September 11, the need to prepare for terrorist attacks has been an excuse for the militarization of police forces, arming them with machine guns, stun grenades and armored personnel carriers. We have already seen these powers unleashed against protest movements and working-class struggles. The Occupy Wall Street protest movement was monitored by the FBI under the excuse that it was a possible terrorist threat. Counterterrorism agents were used to track its activities, and the eventual military-style crackdown on the Occupy encampments around the country was coordinated by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security at the highest levels. Oakland and Chapel Hill saw particularly violent raids, with SWAT teams brandishing automatic weapons in the face of peaceful protesters.
Boston has given the authorities a justification for broadening the “anti-terrorist” cover. Consider the Justice Department’s decision to add former-Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur to the FBI’s most-wanted list as a “terrorist.” She had been sentenced to life in prison in 1977, in connection with the death of a New Jersey State Trooper who had pulled her over with two companions on the New Jersey Turnpike. A shoot-out ensued, but evidence makes it clear that Shakur was not responsible for shooting the cop. She escaped prison two years later. Shakur has never been accused of directing violence against civilians, yet the Justice Department now chose to re-classify her as a terrorist, issue a new million dollar reward for her capture and even erect billboards in New Jersey publicizing her case and calling for information on her whereabouts – even though she has been openly living in Cuba.
The Shakur case shows that surveillance and persecution of Muslims can easily be extended to harassment of anyone the authorities regard as a trouble-maker, especially people of color, working-class militants and anti-imperialist activists.
In response to the new wave of bigoted demagogy, people have stood up to the witch-hunt and argued against it in workplaces, classrooms and street corners and on the internet. Many more people beyond the ranks of Muslims are speaking out against this bigotry than in the aftermath of September 11. As well, a CNN/Time poll indicated that more people in the U.S., by a wide 61 to 39 percent margin, fear government intrusion and overreaction to the Boston events ahead of government inaction to security threats.
This trend expresses the beginnings of deeper changes in political consciousness among a broad layer of Americans. There are several reasons for it. The experience of an economic crisis in which the big banks and businesses got bailed out while working- and middle-class people were left to drown in unemployment and debt has undermined the nation’s sense of patriotic unity. Also, the experience of two terrible wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the scandalous torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the state’s expanded powers to violate citizens’ privacy and suspend their rights in the name of the “war on terror,” have led many Americans to grow wary of the consequences of such scapegoating.
More Blacks and Latinos in particular are speaking out against the chauvinist hysteria. After September 11, 2001, it was not uncommon to hear Black Americans say that with all the nation’s people under attack and united, they felt truly American for the first time after a history of oppression and exclusion. But the years that have followed have exposed that hope as a cruel illusion. The scourge of racism has not disappeared; its subtle forms of discrimination, as well as its overt injustices like police brutality and murder, continue.
The election of the country’s first Black president has done nothing to help people of color avoid disproportionate suffering from the effects of the economic crisis: unemployment, home repossessions and rising poverty have hit Blacks and Latinos hardest. Many people of color in particular rightly sense that compared to the negligible media attention given to the massive slaughter of Muslims and Arabs at the hands of the U.S., Israel and other Western powers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere, the exhaustive media coverage of the comparatively small number of deaths and injuries in Boston, no matter how terrible, expresses a dehumanized attitude toward people of color everywhere and an indifference to their plight.
For us, as Marxist revolutionaries, the key lesson of the Boston events is not what the media have been trumpeting. It is rather that the working-class public is not swallowing the “war on terror” hype. Growing awareness of the workings of capitalism and seeing through the maneuvers and lies of the ruling class are prerequisites for social progress. We are dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a new working-class-run society. Every advance in working-class consciousness and human concern is a step in that direction.
1. “Boston bombings suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev left note in boat he hid in, sources say”; CBS This Morning, May 16, 2013
2.Quoted in Rania Khalek, “Reporter Asks White House if U.S. Airstrikes That Kill Afghan Civilians Qualify as ‘Terrorism’,” April 17, 2013
3.The LRP has joined with others in resisting these campaigns and mobilizing in defense of Muslims. See “Revolutionary Transit Worker Denounces Anti-Muslim Ads” and “Down with Racism and National Chauvinism!”
4.See Natasha Dado, “Hate crimes against Muslims only escalating 10 years after 9/11,” April 1, 2013
5. “NYPD: Muslim spying led to no leads, terror cases,” Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, August 21, 2012
6. “Sotomayor Reflects On Boston: Maybe Sometimes Profiling Can't Be Ignored,” Fox News, May 3
7.The Tsarnayev brothers are of Chechen descent. Chechnya rarely makes the headlines in the U.S.; it is a largely Muslim republic in the Russian Federation, whose right of national independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union was suppressed by the Russian governments of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin in two brutal wars in the 1990's. Chechnya’s capital Grozny, a city of 400,000 people, was twice destroyed by the Russians. The U.S. administrations of Presidents Clinton and Bush II complained diplomatically but nevertheless strongly supported both Yeltsin and Putin. (Clinton went so far as to compare Yeltsin’s imperialist attempt to re-conquer Chechnya to Abraham Lincoln’s progressive defense of the American union against separatist slave-masters in the Civil War!) Some Chechens adopted beliefs in jihadist Islamism and joined the anti-U.S. resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan. There has so far been no evidence that the Tsarnayev brothers were affiliated to any jihadist group. But they could have identified the U.S.’s imperialist wars against Muslim countries with Russia’s devastation of Chechnya.