The horrific bombing attack on the Boston Marathon this past week left us a whole set of painful questions. These are questions that, at least right now anyway, don’t have easy or satisfying answers. We don’t really know who the Tsarnaev brothers were. We don’t know why they placed bombs at the finish line of the marathon. No one knows why they decided to bring death and suffering to so many people.
I feel compelled to say this because of a rumor campaign that began almost as soon as the suspects were identified. Some people began to murmur about the brothers’ origins and alleged religious beliefs, and they implied that maybe we ought to adjust our laws and our way of looking at the world. Insinuations like these are to be expected in the wake of an event such as this, but what made them especially troubling is that many of them came from some of the most influential institutions in our society.
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican, argued that the attack highlights the “gaps and loopholes” in the United States’ immigration system. Though both brothers were in the country legally, and though the younger one had recently received naturalized citizenship, their origin in the violent and troubled Russian Republic of Chechnya drew the interest of some lawmakers, who claimed that we might want to reconsider our criteria for allowing individuals to immigrate. Liberal comedian and political commentator Bill Maher lost no time highlighting the alleged faith of the two brothers. As soon as evidence surfaced that they were Muslim, Maher took a moment on his show to state that this was the latest piece of evidence that there is something about Islam that makes its adherents prone to acts of violence.
These comments focus on different facets of this tragedy, but they share the same despicable worldview. In essence, they contend that we can judge a whole nationality and an entire religious tradition by the actions of two individuals. What makes this type of thinking so destructive is that it implies that we can trace the motivation for what they did to their religion and to their ethnicity. Suddenly these two troubled, hateful individuals cease to be human beings with a unique set of motivations. Instead, they become thoughtless cogs in the machinations of their faith or their nationality.
What is most appalling about these insinuations is that their logic is backwards. These two brothers didn’t commit these heinous acts because they were adherents of Islam; they were able to do so only by violating every tenet of a faith that is every bit as peaceful, just, and complex as Judaism or Christianity. Islam is no more responsible for the actions of these two individuals than Judaism is for the racist preaching and terrorist acts of Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League. When we attribute the motivation of these actions to something inherent to Islam or the brothers’ place of birth, we commit the double sin of impugning the morality and humanity of millions and detracting from the accountability of these individuals. They made these choices because of the lives they chose to live, not because of the faith or nation into which they were born.
We cannot allow ourselves to begin to presume guilt because of what someone is or where ze is from. These two brothers, if indeed they are guilty, did not commit this heinous act because they were Muslim or from Chechnya. This deed should reflect solely on these two individuals, not on the nameless millions who share the fragile connection of religion or ethnicity. It might be easy to tell to what religion someone adheres, or what hir ethnicity is, but it is far harder to tell what motivates hir life. The sooner we realize that what matters isn’t what someone is, but how ze acts, the sooner we’ll place the responsibility for this tragedy on the shoulders of these two brothers, and not on their faith or ethnicity.