We don’t know yet who planted the Boston Marathon bombs. Maybe it was a crazy loner. Maybe it was someone affiliated with a right-wing militia group. Maybe it was Islamic jihadists (The Week has a nice rundown of the current theories).
In a knowledge vacuum, though, the public will speculate that acts of terror arise from the group they fear most. And right now, that group is Muslims. Some early coverage already reported that police were questioning a Saudi man as a suspect—which turned out to be not quite true.
If investigators discover that the the bomber is an Islamic jihadist, of course we should say that. But until we know for sure, we should be wary about speculating. Because when reporters and commentators jump too quickly to the conclusion that “bomb” equals “Arab” or “Muslim” then the public can follow our lead, to disastrous effect.
David Gibson and Lauren Markoe of the The Religion News Service point out that immediately after the attacks, Muslim groups, in a “familiar race against time,” sent out press releases condemning the attacks in an effort to remind Americans that not all Muslims are terrorists. Even so, Gibson and Markoe noted, conservative talk show hosts quickly decided Muslims were to blame. Glenn Beck said that “no American citizen blows up random people,” conveniently forgetting Timothy McVeigh, and regular Fox News guest Erik Rush tweeted, “Let’s kill them,” meaning Muslims.
This hysteria, partly stirred by media types, is why Muslim Americans are praying, “Please, let it not be a Muslim,” said UCLA professor Khaled A. Beydoun, commenting in Al Jazeera. Violence against Muslims escalated after 9/11—the FBI reported a 1,700 percent increase in hate crimes after the attacks—and 10 years later, that violence is still “spiraling out of control,” says analyst Murtaza Hussain in an opinion piece on AlJazeera.com.
We need to find a balance between talking about who was responsible for terrorist acts and why they were committed, and providing enough context so that people don’t start targeting one ethnic or religious group for vengeance. We must also calm the flames when we can. The Washington Post demonstrated how this is done by being quick to correct the stories that an injured Saudi man was a suspect, saying the police now considered him to be a witness. Fox News, after calling the Saudi man “deceptive” on Fox and Friends, likewise did the right thing by running a story online saying the Saudi King condemned the violence. The effect of both stories was to point out that the majority of Muslims and Arabs are not bad people.
But we can go further. One of the most thoughtful pieces on the need to abstain from making a premature Muslim-terrorism connection came from Robin Abcarian in the Los Angeles Times. She quoted the leader of one Muslim group who said that they “are often unfairly criticized for failing to raise their voices against violence. But even when they raise their voices, he said, they have trouble being heard.”
If they have “trouble being heard” it’s because we in the mainstream press aren’t listening. We’re not printing the stories of ordinary, frightened, Muslim witnesses, for example, like Arab News did. Or worse, we print stories that ooze suspicion of Arabs and Muslims. One of the biggest offenders was the New York Daily News. A piece that seemed to be debunking the Saudi-as-suspect story was illustrated with a large photo torn from Facebook of the man in question holding a gun, despite the availability of other images. But why have a photo—or use the man’s name—at all? That just sets him up for harassment. The man was innocent, and a victim. Leave him be.
There are other troubling aspects of the Daily News story that reflect an unobjective skepticism of Arab and Muslim people. Despite starting off with “He didn’t do it,” the piece goes on to emphasize that police questioned his roommate for five hours and searched his apartment. It says he never mentioned to his roommate he was going to the marathon. Without context, the piece implies that these things should call into question the police statement that he’s only a witness. It also says he “spoke excellent English,” as if that matters.
Why was he interrogated by police at all? The Daily News doesn’t say, but The New Yorker does, in a beautifully acerbic piece by Amy Davidson. The Saudi man, it seems, was injured and running away from the blast, like dozens of others, when a bystander tackled him and handed him over to the police. “We don’t know yet who did this,” Davidson wrote of the bombing.
The bombing could, for all we know, be the work of a Saudi man—or an American or an Icelandic or a person from any nation you can think of. It still won’t mean that this Saudi man can be treated the way he was, or that people who love him might have had to find out that a bomb had hit him when his name popped up on the Web as a suspect in custody. It is at these moments that we need to be most careful, not least.
It is when we do not know that we need to be most careful. Our words in the media have consequences—speculating that Muslims are responsible for the Boston bombs when we don’t know for sure encourages Americans to think of Muslims as being dangerous others, instead of part of America’s fabric. And this leads non-Arab Americans to feel justified in being violent toward Muslims, people of Arab descent, and people who just look like they might be one of those things.
Islamic jihadists have committed grave acts of terror, but all Muslims, all Arabs, aren’t terrorists. Let’s not terrorize those communities by framing stories as if we expect that they are.Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.