Last week, the United States suffered the first successful domestic terror attack since Sept. 11, 2001. As of this writing, one suspect is dead and the second is in custody and has just recently awoken. Although this attack was not on the scale of 9/11, we can still reflect on our response to terror and the areas in which society can improve. Are we more measured or just desensitized? What have been the effects of similar, but unsuccessful, attempts, such as the Times Square car bomber or the underwear bomber, on our perceptions of terrorism? How should we evaluate the media’s response to the bombings? How do we deal with a widespread, irrational fear of Muslims, of the “others,” a fear that prevents us from understanding the complexities of the Middle East and moves some politicians to suggest trying our own citizens as “enemy combatants” (a position that the Obama administration has rejected)?
I interviewed Saif Kazim of the Society for Islamic Awareness, a campus student organization that attempts to foster awareness of Muslim issues. He points to the media’s emphasis on the nationality of an initial person of interest, a Saudi national injured in the blast. The Saudi national was questioned but quickly released after he showed no connection to the attacks. Kazim insists that the narrative was based on false assumptions. “That there are statistical probabilities [that Muslims commit the majority of terrorist acts] is not evident.” He believed the media rushed to a quick judgment that would fit more easily into the general narrative. “When you hear the story about why he was picked up, he was running [from the area], and he was reported as looking suspicious.” It’s worth noting that The New York Post, which ran the story, quickly withdrew it.
UT journalism professor Robert Jensen has seen significant improvement on the coverage of this event as opposed to the coverage of 9/11. “We don’t know the circumstances around this one person of interest, but we can certainly see the difference between a single episode and a pattern of invidious discrimination.” Although we must constantly be vigilant, Jensen says most of the media has “learned from the past” and journalists are slower to buy into the “mob mentality” that led to more systematic discrimination after 9/11.
When I asked Kazim about whether the detention and quick release of one person of interest could lead to more general profiling, he pointed to a story reported by Boston’s FOX 25 News on April 17 in which two Arabic speakers were asked to remove themselves from a Chicago-bound airplane because passengers, many of them Boston Marathon runners, were uncomfortable. No further details were given. Indeed, the USA Today story reported last week that Muslim organizations were particularly worried about an “irrational response” to the Boston Marathon bombings. The story cited comments made by conservative media mogul Pat Robertson: “Don’t talk to me about ‘religion of peace’…no way!”
After the attack, a Muslim woman in Malden, Mass. was allegedly harassed while walking with her child by a man who screamed, “You are terrorists! We hate you!” according to the Malden Patch, a local newspaper. Malden Mayor Gary Christenson later called the woman who had been the target of the attack to say that he “would not tolerate” hate speech. But Kazim sees improvement as well. “There is more awareness of the discrimination now. The discriminatory governmental policies are still in place, but there were several opinion pieces that ran calling out discrimination.”
Many in the media should also be applauded for their initial restraint in considering a variety of different possible motives for the bombings. As we continue to learn the details of the investigation, let us keep in mind the words of President Barack Obama, who on April 19 said, “The American spirit includes staying true to the unity and diversity that makes us strong. And that’s why we take care not to rush to judgment — not about the motivations of these individuals; certainly not about entire groups of people.”
Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.