Human beings make sense of our realities by telling ourselves stories. In political life, perceptions are everything. There is no independent, underlying “objective” reality. There are only subjective understandings of events and actors, refracted through various framing narratives. Competing, interlocking, and intersecting accounts, therefore, are the actual substance of social and political life. They determine its “reality.”
The identification of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnayev as the culprits responsible for the attack against the crowd at the Boston Marathon has proven surprisingly resistant to quick or easy narrativization. In the United States, instead of a clean and simple account that could be the focal point for anger and grandstanding, many different – and often mutually incompatible – interpretations are competing for the public’s attention.
The facts are so unexpected, incoherent, and bewildering that most Americans are continuing to grasp for a dominant – and of necessity reductive but comprehensible – account of why these men lashed out so viciously and pointlessly at what still seems to have been a random target.
Last week I warned about the danger the attack on the Boston Marathon might reinvigorate slowly fading anti-Muslim sentiments, and that it could have a highly negative impact on how Americans perceive terrorism and with whom they associate it. It still may, over time.
What was not expected by anyone is that the facts as they emerged would be so convoluted and contradictory that, instead of fitting into any given prefabricated framework, they would hint somewhat at many but strongly reinforce none. So, for now, the broad American reaction to the attacks has been split between multiple, competing narratives.
Of course Islamophobes see in this act a confirmation of their notion that Muslims in general are to be associated with terrorism. But even though it’s become clear that Tamerlan Tsarnayev, at least, had become religiously fanatical and intolerant in recent years, that does not explain the political motivations for the attack – assuming there were any at all.
Many focused on the fact that the brothers are half-Chechen. But their connection to Chechnya – where neither were born or ever lived – seems tenuous. They appear more American than anything else. Moreover, the biggest political losers here are probably the Chechen rebels themselves, whose cause and interests don’t include being seen as enemies by the United States.
It did not matter if the focus was on crimes committed against or perpetrated by Chechens over the past century. Again, this narrative failed to provide a stable, comprensible explanation for what had happened.
Others focused on some kind of family drama. The relationship between the much-older brother and his younger sibling is assumed to be one of manipulation, which it almost certainly was. But again that does not explain the act itself at all.
Another family drama account conjectured that the Tsarnayevs were acting in a kind of oedipal rebellion against their secular – and possibly pro-Moscow– father. It’s a neat bit of pop psychology conjecture but again explains little.
And then, of course, there are conspiracy theories on the political margins, blaming the US or Russian governments – or some other “hidden hand” – for the attacks. And that’s only to skim the surface of the interpretations of the known facts now competing for attention in the American public sphere.
The main effect of this proliferation of speculation and confusion has been that righteous anger has been blunted by the fact that – beyond the two suspects themselves – most Americans simply have no idea who or what ought to be held broadly responsible.
The Islamophobic impulse seems to have actually been stronger before the Tsarnayevs were fingered as responsible than it has been since then.
The other factor that has seriously undermined a major backlash has been the almost universal perception among Americans that this tragic tale had a bittersweet and heroic dénouement. For almost 24 hours, the public began to wonder if, in Boston, their society was slipping out of control, with multiple incidents reported involving shootings, bombs, and other potential sources of mayhem.
But when Dzhokhar was successfully captured alive the country breathed an enormous collective sigh of relief. The police and national guard were seen as valiant, the social system as working, and order finally restored.
Anger was thereby mingled with feelings of ultimate reassurance and vindication.
In the short run, the lack of a hegemonic framing narrative – combined with an uplifting ending to the saga as it was experienced by Americans in real time – helped mitigate the emergence of a major misguided backlash.
In the long run, much depends on what, if any, hegemonic narrative regarding the marathon attacks emerges. As the 9/11 backlash, which reached its peak many years after the event itself, demonstrated, the reaction can be a delayed one.