Saturday, April 20, 2013

Home-grown terrorism

While the smoke hasn’t cleared yet, many Americans were quick to blame Muslim terrorists for the bombing of the Boston Marathon last April 15. Arab extremists were also the first among the usual suspects in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, until an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper caught Timothy McVeigh, a local extremist and militia movement sympathizer and Gulf War veteran. 

Runner lies on the street as bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon
 on April 15, 2013.
It is almost reflexive to pin responsibility on Muslim jihadists for any act of terrorism, especially if it happens on American soil. Media commentators, including former FBI and CIA operatives, have pointed to the signature of a Muslim act of terror, possibly in revenge for the killing of Osama bin Laden. A twenty-year-old Saudi man watching the marathon and himself a victim of the bombing, his body torn by the force of the bomb, became a casualty of “racial profiling” as he was questioned for hours while in hospital being treated for his wounds. His apartment was searched by a phalanx of officers and agents with two K9 units. 

His name was tweeted out with the description as a “suspect.” Eventually, he was ruled out, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

America has already called the Boston bombing an act of terror. Whether it is foreign or domestic terrorism, the FBI and police authorities are still combing through the evidence for definitive proof of culpability. 

The word “terrorism” is utterly meaningless, especially right after an attack or bombing has been perpetrated. But to many Americans, acts of terror can only be the handiwork of Muslim extremists. When the terroristic act happens on American soil, the more it is presumed in the minds of many that such is jihadist-inspired. 

Most Americans easily forget that they could also be equally guilty for acts of terror in many parts of the world today, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia. When hundreds die from a US air force strike in Iraq or Afghanistan, including children and women, this is not condemned as an act of terror. Yet it has the same tragic consequence: death and injuries in even greater numbers, and the blanketing of fear among those targeted that life to them would never be normal again. 

Images of terroristic violence by Muslim extremists are hard to erase in the minds of most Americans. The attacks on September 11 have become so indelible that Americans expect and fear there would be more of this kind. To many Americans, Muslim jihadists are already culpable and responsible even if the act of terror has not been committed yet, and it is only a matter of time that they would commit again another 9/11 horrific act. 

The flipside of terrorism is it can be an event for celebration, just the way Americans rejoiced after Osama bin Laden had been summarily assassinated in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by US special forces. Or when the Taliban was routed in Afghanistan after they had been relentlessly shelled with American bombs. Or when the government of Saddam Hussein fell after the US invaded Iraq. These acts are vivid examples of terrorism, yet to the victors, this is terrorism of the noble and righteous kind. 

But the idea of relativity doesn’t apply to acts of terrorism. By the nature of it, terrorism can never be condoned. When people are killed or maimed, there is no such term as good or noble terrorism even for the victors of the war against terror. Terrorism is an evil that humankind should reject. The Boston bombing is an act of terrorism that we must all abhor and condemn, whether foreign-inspired or the handiwork of grassroots terrorism in America.

Photographs recently released to the public by the FBI of two suspects for the Boston bombing led to a manhunt, with one of the suspects getting killed during a shoot-out and the other one being able to escape but subsequently captured after a wild chase, inside a boat drydocked in a backyard in Watertown, a suburb of Boston. 

Identified originally from Chechnya, a breakaway southern peg of the Russian federation, the suspects—brothers, Tamarlan, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19—reportedly spent some years in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, another volatile Muslim-dominated Russian republic. They have been living for a decade now in the US where they came with their family as refugees after fleeing the war in Chechnya. Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim territory in southern Russia that sought independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For much of the two brothers’ generation, according to a Chechen expert, Chechnya has always been “a place of violence, abductions, widows, orphans and rape.” 

It has not been established whether the brothers had connections with Muslim jihadists or even to the civil strife in Chechnya. But Americans are quick in prejudging the brothers, as was the immediate reaction of Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis who considered them “terrorists with a mission to kill.” This kind of irresponsible prejudgment is fuelled by an American double-standard that declares Muslim suspects guilty because of their Islamic persuasion, without any kind of investigation or court finding of criminal culpability. 

What could be the motive of the young suspect Dzhokhar in joining his older brother to bomb the Boston Marathon? Only eight when he came to the US, he practically grew up in America. “It is necessary to seek the roots of evil in America,” says Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's pro-Russian president. The boys were raised in the United States, and therefore their beliefs were formed there and not in Chechnya, he said. 

Images of Boston bombing suspects, Chechen-American brothers Tamarlan
 and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from an FBI photograph released to the public. Click
link , to view Social Media Profile of Boston Suspects

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a student at the University of Massachusetts, an all-star wrestler who won a scholarship in high school so he could pursue higher education. His father, who is back in Russia, told reporters Dzhokhar was a bright student and planning to enter medical school. We could only speculate, but young Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamarlan could both be right for the picking by a militant protest movement that’s looking for a more aggressively violent expression of their cause. 

Transforming from a peaceful protest movement into a violent and more radical demonstration of disagreement with the government or any of its instrumentalities is nothing new or even unheard of. During the 1960s, many antiwar activists in the US believed that peaceful protests alone were not enough to influence war policy. They became more militant using civil disobedience, strikes, public, disruption, guerilla theatre, and bombings. The same could be true with other American protest initiatives such as the militant Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement which was reported in The Guardian in December 2012 as being monitored by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security through its joint terrorism task force. 

In 1969, the Weathermen Underground, a faction of the Revolutionary Youth Movement and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), embarked on a romantic, nihilistic orgy of violence. The Weathermen terrorized the nation with their bombings which set off a national bombing epidemic in the name of antiwar protest: the U.S. Treasury estimated 5000 bombings across the nation between 1967 and 1970. 

It would not be a farfetched scenario that the OWS movement or any similar militant group, just like the antiwar protest in the ’60s, could get fed up with their peaceful demonstration of grievances against social inequality, greed, corruption, and the perceived undue influence of corporations on government, particularly by the financial services sector. Who really knows if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother could be simply waiting to be sucked into a militant protest organization, not necessarily pro-jihadist, where they could resuscitate their rebellious passion that was nurtured during Chechnya’s war of independence? 

If those two Chechen brothers turned out to be part of a clandestine extremist-violence-prone faction of a restless protest movement, if there is such a thing, despite labelling itself as a peaceful movement, the Boston bombing will be treated just as an isolated incident without any relevance to larger policy debates on the war against terror. Because they are home-grown terrorists and Caucasian, these suspects will enjoy the privilege of being insulated from collective blame and condemnation. 

On the other hand, it would be different if the Boston bombers were truly brown-skinned Muslims, or from the developing world and have a deep-seated hatred against Americans. Since they broke US laws particularly upon iconic institutions such as the Boston Marathon and the celebration of Patriot’s Day, we can expect the government to target their entire demographic group and launch a more systematic response. Short of sending the US army to invade or bomb their countries of origin (remember Afghanistan and Iraq), the Boston incident is also enough reason for conservatives in Congress to block immigration reform and other legislation that would benefit ethnic minorities. Granting asylum to refugees from war-torn countries would never be easier from now on. 

In other words, the fallout from the Boston bombing could be nasty if those found guilty were Muslim extremists or foreigners from another country. As David Sirota, an American writer said: “There is a double standard: White terrorists are dealt with as lone wolves, Islamists are existential threats.” 

In spring of 1997, I was on a trip with my wife in Denver, Colorado. She was attending a conference and I had the free time to discover the city’s museums and art shops. I learned that the trial of Timothy McVeigh for the infamous Oklahoma City bombing was being held in the city court close to our hotel. McVeigh’s trial was moved to Denver because of fear that he would not get a fair hearing in Oklahoma. 

For three days I patiently lined up every morning to attend McVeigh’s trial and ended up sitting outside the courtroom because there were so many people who wanted to observe the trial but could not be accommodated. Through the public address system, we followed all the proceedings as if we were inside the court witnessing the trial of McVeigh in person.
McVeigh wanted to seek revenge against the federal government’s handling of the Waco Siege, as well as for the Ruby Ridge incident in 1992. McVeigh hoped to inspire a revolt against what he considered to be a tyrannical federal government. He was eventually convicted of eleven federal offenses and sentenced to death. 

The Oklahoma City bombing happened on April 19, the same day that the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts marked the beginning of the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War. This is now celebrated in Massachusetts as Patriot’s Day and is held every third Monday in April, coinciding with the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon. 

The Boston bombers must have brushed up on their American history and the vast significance of the Boston Marathon and Patriot’s Day celebration. Plus the fact that they used relatively low-tech pressure-cooker explosives suggests that the bombing smelled more like domestic terrorism. One can’t help but wonder if the Boston bombing sounds like déjà vu the 1960s? 

Knowing the real motives of the Boston bombers would be a tall order, and it would be a challenge for government prosecutors to link the bombing to Muslim jihadist-inspired terrorism. Motive certainly helps solving attacks easier. Should another terroristic attack happen, it would make matters better if the perpetrators, whoever they are, were deprived of the attention they most crave, instead of round-the-clock coverage by CNN and the other major television channels who indulged us 24/7 with gruesome details and premature speculations. 

The lesson from the recent Boston bombing is clear: America’s definition of terrorism has changed. Terrorism can also be cultivated and nurtured at home, not just foreign-inspired, which makes the job of defending Americans in their homeland even a lot harder.

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