Today, the L.A. times reported chillingly that the FBI had received a report on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radical Islamist proclivities from the Russian intelligence service before his 2012 trip to that country’s restive Muslim republics, Dagestan and Chechnya. Yet after examining his background and interviewing him face to face, the U.S. security agency gave him a clean bill of health:
U.S. authorities acknowledged that an unnamed government had contacted the FBI to say the 26-year-old ethnic Chechen “had changed drastically” since 2010 and was preparing to leave the United States “to join unspecified underground groups,” according to an official statement from the FBI.
There are a number of ways to approach this information and interpret it, none of them flattering to the FBI. Either it had a terrible relationship with the FSB and didn’t trust what it had been told by them; the agency conducted a slipshod investigation of Tsarnaev; it didn’t consider Chechen terrorism a likely threat to the U.S.; or based on the impression the Chechen-American gave to the interviewing agent, he didn’t view him as a serious threat.
At least some of the information available to the FSB–Tsarnaev’s participation on Russian-language, Chechen web forums–would’ve been accessible to U.S. investigators as well. The Russians may’ve had domestic informants providing them some of the data they offered to the FBI.
In hindsight, it’s clear that the FBI botched an opportunity to probe more deeply into Tsarnaev’s beliefs and activities to determine whether they posed a domestic threat. Had they done so, they might have disrupted the carnage that Boston suffered this week.
In all the hoopla in the aftermath of this crisis–the flag-waving, back-slapping, Muslim-baiting–I’ve heard nary a word about the security lapse that allowed this tragedy. While it’s natural to take the simpler, less troublesome approach in situations like this, we do so at our risk. It’s critical to learn lessons from this failure and how to avoid it in future.
There are, understandably, Muslims and progressives who are leery of labeling this as a terrorist attack. Doing so falls into every Islamophobic trap known to man. Figures like Pam Geller, Robert Spencer and David Yerushalmi are having a field day, since it confirms their fondest dreams and prejudices. Rep. Peter King dredges up new anti-Muslim lies claiming there have been “sixteen” terror plots against New York since 9/11, “all of them” by Muslims. He adds more fuel to the fire here:
“We’re at war with Islamic terrorism. It’s coming from people within the Muslim community by the terrorists coming from that community, just like the mafia comes from Italian communities.”
Further, NPR falsely reports there have been no acts of terror in the U.S. since 9/11.
It’s certainly reasonable to heed the cautionary warnings from Ali Abunimah asking us only to report what we know, and not to fuel the worst prejudices of Americans and their ill-informed media mandarins with idle speculation.
But on the other hand, to me it makes little sense to parse definitions of terror as Ali has done, and to claim that nothing we know now about the Tsarnaevs and their motivations fits those definitions; therefore we should hold off on jumping the gun.
My reporting style is different. I agree that it’s important to report accurately, especially when tempers are high and there is so much at stake. But if we fail to report what seems obvious and right in front of our faces, we run the risk of failing our readers and our political cause.
We may wish, as David Sirota wrote in his blog, that the Marathon bombers had been white guys, but they weren’t. We may have hoped that this was an act whose motivations were more generic and neutral, so as not to fan the flames of prejudice against Muslims here and world-wide.
But from every indication, including the L.A. Times report linked above which associates the older brother with “radical Islam,” I don’t see how we do our cause any service by denying what seems either inevitable; or at the least highly likely. Add to this, the story told in that article about Tamerlan’s explosion during the imam’s sermon at a Cambridge mosque, when the latter held out Martin Luther King as a figure worthy of emulation. The suspected Islamist shouted that King shouldn’t be held out as a worthy model since he wasn’t Muslim. For this outburst, he was ejected from the prayer service.
I would far prefer to, while being cautious and responsible in my reporting, accept what appears likely (that this was an act of terror, no matter how misguided) and draw the proper lessons from it. I would far rather explain why it happened and what we might learn about our own behaviors that might lessen the chance of it happening again.
For example, I’d like Americans to ponder this loving image of the younger Tamerlan and Dzokhar with their younger sister which is the exemplar of innocence and devotion. Let’s try to contemplate how two such loving boys could turn into such monsters. What happened to them? Where did such angels go and why?
That seems a worthy enterprise. One that will do some good, lessen the hate, and make the world, if not a vastly better place, then at least a little less bad than it otherwise might be.