The bomb attack on the Boston Marathon could prove a defining moment in American political culture and attitudes. Particularly for a new generation of young Americans, this tragedy is likely to be a profound formative experience. But it will also have a huge impact on the whole of American society.
The identity of the still entirely unknown culprits will probably play a major role in who and what is most closely associated with terrorism in the American imagination for years to come. And such a broad cultural impact could have significant political and policy implications, for better or worse.
The night of the attack I was scheduled to give a talk at an institution for college students from around the United States serving as interns in Washington DC. But I arrived early, just as American President Barack Obama began addressing his country regarding attack.
The atmosphere was deadly quiet and electric. Approximately 60 college students of every description were transfixed around a TV. I watched them watching him.
On September 11, 2001, I was Communications Director for a large Arab-American organization. As I looked at those college students, I instantly recognized facial expressions, body language, and a raw intensity I haven’t seen since then.
It’s significant that these were 18-22 year-olds, none of them old enough to have experienced the 9/11 attacks as American adults did.
They’ve already seen their share of tragedy, to be sure. Last year, Hurricane Sandy ravaged large sections of New York and New Jersey. And on December 14, Adam Lanza – at 20, one of their own age cohort – shot and killed himself, his mother, 20 schoolchildren, and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.
But this is different. While traumatic events, neither of them were regarded as terrorism. No other terrorist act in the United States since 9/11 has had the profound symbolic resonance of the Boston bombings.
It seemed clear that for these students this was a defining experience: an unmistakable confrontation with political violence and sabotage directly aimed at highly symbolic national targets with an evidently ideological, although still mysterious, motivation.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, terrorism in American culture has been virtually synonymous with extremist Muslim political violence. The memories of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and more recent experiences with other kinds of terrorists, have not shattered this false equation. But doubts have been growing.
The Boston Marathon attack comes at a crucial cultural moment, just as the zone of impunity surrounding anti-Muslim bigotry has begun to palpably recede. Even on the political and cultural right, a major pushback against Islamophobia has been well underway.
The Boston bombings are perfectly positioned chronologically to have a maximal impact on how broadly or narrowly “terrorism” and “terrorists” are defined in the imaginations of many Americans.
If the culprits prove to be Arab in origin or Muslim, that could well reinforce a highly damaging stereotype that has been steadily receding back to the American social and cultural margins where it belongs. It could, at least partially, undo years of painstaking effort by so many Americans to push back against post-9/11 prejudices.
If, however, as is at least equally plausible at this stage, the perpetrators are found to be from an entirely different identity group, that would almost certainly prove the biggest blow yet to the illusion that Muslims and terrorists are more or less synonymous.
It’s difficult to overstate how much is at stake.
Many Arab and Muslim Americans have been open about their anxieties, and organizations have rushed to issue condemnations.
A similar, and sometimes sinister sentiment, is also brewing on the far-right. Some Tea Party activists are accusing the government of staging a “false flag” operation to blame them and suppress their political activities.
The white, Christian extreme-right has less to fear, since their core identity makes them part of the majority community. But some of their advocates are conveying profound concern about the consequences should they find themselves collectively and politically blamed.
The false equation of behavior and identity has to be broken.
The conscious or unconscious conflation of “Muslim and “terrorist” in contemporary American culture is completely dysfunctional. Replacing stereotypes about Muslims with stereotypes about the far right not only isn’t going to happen – it also wouldn’t be an improvement.
Distinguishing between behavior and identity is essential for the health of American culture. It’s also vital to sound counterterrorism and law enforcement policies, free from the distortions of false assumptions.
The outcome of the Boston investigation, and how the American government and society deals with it, could provide a historic opportunity for a step backwards into deeper prejudice or a leap forward towards clearer thinking.
Watching those students watching their President left me with little doubt of how much impact it is likely to have, one way or the other.