In the confusion, horror and grief that followed the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, only one thing was clear: some people had decided who was responsible, facts be damned.
Before there was even an accurate count of the dead and injured, voices in the right-wing media and among the professional Islamophobes began to speculate that, of course, a Muslim terrorist must be responsible.
Overall, much of the media coverage in the early hours after the bombings, which killed three and injured 176, was restrained, at least in comparison to previous tragedies. Anchors repeatedly stated the truth: it was too soon to speculate about who carried out the bombing and why. A lot of the focus was on images of courage and hope–the rescue workers and ordinary people who ran toward the carnage to care for the injured, ferry people to safety and offer comfort.
But as the hours went on–and the media's vapid "experts" were left with time to fill–the speculation began.
On CNN and WABC, it was reported that police were seeking a "darker-skinned or Black male" with a "possible foreign accent." The New York Post, never missing an opportunity to sink to a new racist low, falsely reported that 12 people had been killed, police believed a "Saudi national" was responsible–and that the man was "under guard" at an area hospital.
The implication: This was a new 9/11.
But Boston police later stated that there was no suspect in custody–Saudi or otherwise.
A Saudi man, a university student in Boston, was questioned at an area hospital. He was a victim of the bombings and had suffered serious burns. According to Boston.com, a law enforcement official said the man had been tackled and held by a bystander after he was seen running from the scene–like the hundreds of other people who tried to get away from the explosions.
Despite the police statement, self-styled terrorism expert Steve Emerson went on C-SPAN to speculate about the unnamed Saudi student–the day after the bombing. "I have been given privy to certain classified information," Emerson said. "It appears that it was a political act of terrorism done for political reasons…On the Facebook page of the person of interest, there were interesting entries against the United States. Again, he has not been convicted, but the burns on his skin match the explosive residue of the bomb that exploded."
On Fox News, Emerson was forced to admit that "the Saudi suspect has been ruled out." But he assured Fox host Megyn Kelly that the bombing must be the work of Islamic terrorists. Why? Because the use of a bomb was a "hallmark" of Islamic terrorists–while right-wing terrorists "use guns to carry out their attacks," Emerson said.
Apparently, this terrorism "expert" couldn't recall that the Oklahoma City federal building–the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil prior to 9/11–was bombed by white militia movement supporters.
The racist rush to judgment that a Muslim terrorist must be responsible wasn't limited to the media. Politicians could hardly wait to weigh in.
Asked if she knew of a motive behind the bombing, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, stated, "Whenever we have an attack like this, it's difficult not to think that it is somehow involved in Islamic extremism." Collins then seemed to remember that she was publicly spewing completely unfounded accusations, so she added, "But I don't have evidence to back that up."
On CNN, former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman appeared on The Lead hours after the bombing, where she guessed not only that the culprits might be related to al-Qaeda, but that more attacks would be coming: "I would say, based on experience in this modern era with al-Qaeda and al Qaeda-like organizations, we should anticipate, if this turns out to be the signature, some other attacks either in sporting events or in high-target cities or on holiday afternoons where there are mass gatherings."
Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King used the opportunity to take a swipe at proposals for immigration reform. "If we can't background-check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background check the 11 to 20 million people that are here from who knows where?" King told National Review Online.
But all that was tame compared to Fox News commentator Erik Rush. On the day of the bombing, Rush tweeted "Everybody do the National Security Ankle Grab! Let's bring more Saudis in without screening them! C'mon!" When someone asked if he was blaming all Muslims for the bombing, Rush replied, "Yes, they're evil. Let's kill them all."
Rush later resorted to the only lame excuse he could–it was "sarcasm."
But Rush didn't explain if it was "sarcasm" when he later tweeted, "It's nice to see all the Islamist apologists standing up for those who would waste them in a heartbeat." Ditto for his article titled "Yes, Islam is the enemy," in which Rush stated: "This is truth: Both the political left and Islamists in America have been exploiting the First Amendment and Americans' generous nature in order to conquer us. It's that simple, and if it does come to violent confrontation, I'd rather our side be victorious, whatever that takes."
While Rush may have a bigger soapbox than most, his comments reflect the deep-seated racism against Arabs and Muslims that has grown in U.S. society since 9/11.
When media figureheads, politicians and others whip up Islamophobic sentiments, it has consequences. In the hours following the Boston bombings, a torrent of vile, racist abuse was directed at Arabs and Muslims through social media. And the day after the bombings, an American Airlines flight leaving Boston's Logan Airport for Chicago was brought back to the gate after passengers became "concerned" that two men were speaking Arabic on the flight. The men were removed from the flight.
The crime of "flying while Arab" has become all-too-familiar to many Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. since 9/11–passengers have been treated with suspicion for activities like praying, wearing Islamic clothing or, as in Boston, simply speaking another language.
With anti-Muslim rhetoric on the rise after the Boston bombings, the threat of racist attacks is high. We need to stand in solidarity with our Arab and Muslim sisters and brothers to prevent such a racist backlash from taking place.
The Islamophobia is the direct consequence of the U.S. political establishment playing up fears of terrorism in order to shore up support for the war on terror abroad, while curtailing civil liberties here at home.
As Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote, "The history of these types of attacks over the last decade has been clear and consistent: they are exploited to obtain new government powers, increase state surveillance and take away individual liberties."
Many media outlets and conservative commenters raised a complaint that Barack Obama's initial statement about the Boston bombings failed to use the word "terrorism" (likely because designating an act as "terrorist" has certain legal ramifications under U.S. law).
The right-wingers needn't have worried, though. It took less than a day for Obama to state, "Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror." As Greenwald wrote:
Of course, the quest to know whether this was "terrorism" is really code for: "was this done by Muslims"? That's because, in U.S. political discourse, "terrorism" has no real meaning other than violence perpetrated by Muslims against the West. The reason there was such confusion and uncertainty about whether this was "terrorism" is because there is no clear and consistently applied definition of the term. At this point, it's little more than a term of emotionally manipulative propaganda.
Amid the speculation about Arab or Muslim responsibility for the Boston bombings, almost no one in the media pointed out the long and gruesome history of terrorism carried about by racists and the far right.
From the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, to the bombing of Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics, to arsons targeted against abortion clinics and mosques, the list of violent attacks and terror plots by the right goes on and on.
Yet the perception of terrorism is that it has an Arab or Muslim face. The New York Times, for example, proclaimed that the bombings in Boston were "the end of more than a decade in which the United States experienced strikingly few terrorist attacks, in part because of far more aggressive law enforcement tactics in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."
Tellingly, the Times failed to mention the 2009 murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who endured years of threats and violence before being gunned down while at church by an anti-abortion fanatic. Nor did the "newspaper of record" spare a word for the six victims of the last year's shooting spree at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, carried out by neo-Nazi gunman Wade Michael Page.
Do these lives not "count" as victims of terrorism because the perpetrators were white men?
The Times' omission of right-wing violence from its list of terrorist attacks was coupled with the argument that the "war on terror"–particularly within in the U.S., with the ramping up of the national security state that has produced a massive expansion of law enforcement and curtailing of civil liberties since 9/11–has made Americans safer.
"As a result of 9/11, there's been a revolution in the way law enforcement treats this problem," Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, told the Times. "Police agencies led by the FBI are far more proactive. They're interrupting the plots before the attacker gets out the door."
But in many cases, the FBI and police aren't "interrupting" plots. They're concocting them, and then entrapping vulnerable individuals to demonize as the perpetrators.
The stark truth is that most people convicted of terrorism-related charges in the U.S. during the "war on terror" decade not only never killed anyone, but they never even came close to perpetrating an attack on U.S. soil.
Take the Newburgh 4, for example–four African American men from Newburgh, N.Y., arrested on terrorism charges in 2009 for allegedly plotting to bomb two synagogues and shoot down military aircraft with missiles. The men had neither the means, abilities nor motives to carry out such acts before they met FBI agent provocateur Shahed Hussain–who recruited them from a local mosque with promises of payment. Even the trial judge referred to this as "the 'un-terrorism' case.'"
On top of the abuses heaped on marginalized individuals like the Newburgh 4, the federal government exploits these "terrorist plots," no matter how outlandish, to bolster the national security state. As Greenwald wrote: "That's what the U.S. government (aided by the sham "terrorism expert" industry) does in every single one of these cases: exploits the resulting fear to increase its own power and decrease everyone else's rights, including privacy."
It is, however, possible to resist the media hysteria, the fear-mongering and the drive to turn a horrific tragedy into a pretext for a government clampdown. Ordinary people in Boston showed the way, with thousands of people attending a vigil for the victims and reaching out to support their family and friends.
The parents of Trayvon Martin–the African American teenager murdered by a racist vigilante in Florida last year–likewise made a profound statement with their message to the family of 8-year-old Marting Richard, one of those killed in the bombings (Martin's sister and mother were also gravely injured).
A widely circulated picture of Martin shows him holding a picture of a peace sign he made after Trayvon's killing. Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, sent a message of solidarity to Martin's family:
We have come to understand that the peace sign that Martin is holding in a photo being circulated throughout the media was created in response to a lesson by his teacher about the death of our son and the issue of violence. From our family to yours, we are praying for you, thinking about you and will remember your son for the rest of our lives.
This example–of solidarity in the face of horror, of the refusal to give into fear–is one we should remember.
This article originally appeared at SocialistWorker.org.