In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, we are suffering through the inevitable period of liberal hand-wringing. Liberals can’t help themselves: while normal people are reviling the bombers, celebrating their capture or death, and debating measures that can be taken to prevent future atrocities, liberals’ thinking (if you can call it that) goes in a different direction. Liberals call for understanding; tell the rest of us we don’t realize how complex mass murder is; recommend introspection (But why? I didn’t do it.); and warn against various forms of overreaction to the latest terrorist outrage. The reality of evil, a constant in human affairs for millennia, renders liberals not speechless–that would be too much to hope for–but incoherent.
These days there are more such outpourings of liberal feelings than one can count, but let’s note just two, for now. First, Governor Deval Patrick, who appeared on Face the Nation this morning:
The governor of Massachusetts said Sunday that he has no idea what motivated the brothers accused of exploding two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Really? Hmm. Check out the Boston Globe, Governor. They think Islam might have played a secondary role.
Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Gov. Deval Patrick said it’s hard to imagine why someone would deliberately harm “innocent men, women and children in the way that these two fellows did.”
It is, indeed, hard to imagine if you aren’t evil. But this is a banal and singularly unhelpful observation. Experience tells us that some people do indeed want to harm innocent men, women and children in this fashion. Muslims alone carry out, on the average, several terrorist attacks a day for the purpose of harming innocent men, women and children, and they are by no means the only source of evil in the world. So our public officials should stop expressing amazement at the existence of evil and start figuring out how to protect the rest of us from it.
This piece in The Atlantic is a good exemplar of the mushy liberal commentary that has proliferated in recent days. Authored by one Megan Garber, it is titled: “The Boston Bombers Were Muslim: So?” Before taking a close look at Ms. Garber’s article, let’s advise The Atlantic not to put away that headline. It could come in handy so often. “The Cole Bombers Were Muslim: So?” “The Embassy Bombers Were Muslim: So?” “The First World Trade Center Bombers Were Muslim: So?” “The September 11 Bombers Were Muslim: So?” “The Madrid Bombers Were Muslim: So?” “The London Bombers Were Muslim: So?” “The Shoebomber Was Muslim: So?” The Underwear Bomber Was Muslim: So?” “The Fort Hood Shooter Was Muslim: So?” “The Beslan Child-Murderers Were Muslim: So?” “The Times Square Bomber Was Muslim: So?”
We could keep this up for a very long time, but let’s move on to Ms. Garber’s soulful meanderings. I will quote Garber at length, lest you think I am cherry-picking her musings to make her look stupid:
Here is what we know — or what we think we know — about Tamerlan Tsarnaev: He was a boxer and a “gifted athlete.” He did not smoke or drink — “God said no alcohol” — and didn’t take his shirt off in public “so girls don’t get bad ideas.” He was “very religious.” He had a girlfriend who was half-Portuguese and half-Italian. In 2009, he was arrested after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. He was “a nice guy.” He was also a “cocky guy.” He was also a “a normal guy.” He loved the movie Borat. He wanted to become an engineer, but his first love was music: He studied it in school, playing the piano and the violin. He didn’t have American friends, he said — “I don’t understand them” — but he also professed to appreciate the U.S. (“America has a lot of jobs …. You have a chance to make money here if you are willing to work”). He was training, as a boxer, to represent the U.S. in the Olympics.
We know, or we think we do, that Tamerlan’s brother, Dzhokar, is “very quiet.” Having graduated from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School — a public school known for its diverse student body — he received a scholarship from the City of Cambridge. He went to his prom, with a date and in a tux. He had friends. He posed with them, smiling, at graduation. He tweeted pictures of cats. He skateboarded around his Cambridge neighborhood. His personal priorities, he has said, are “career and money.” He is a second-year medical student at U Mass Dartmouth. He is seemingly Chechan by birth and Muslim by religion, and has lived in the U.S. since 2002. He is “a true angel.” He has uncles in Maryland. He called one of them yesterday and said, “Forgive me.”
These are provisional facts. They are the products of the chaos of breaking news, and may well also be the products of people who stretch the truth — or break it — in order to play a role in the mayhem. They are very much subject to change. But they are also reminders of something it’s so easy to forget right now, especially for the many, many members of the media — professional and otherwise — who currently find themselves under pressure of live air or deadline: Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are not simply “the Marathon bombers,” or “murderers,” or “Chechens,” or “immigrants,” or “Muslims.” They might turn out to be all of those things. They might not. The one thing we know for sure is that they are not only those things.
That’s right! We must not let them be defined in the public mind by the fact that they were mass-murdering terrorists. They were so much more complicated than that!
They had friends and families and lives. They had YouTube accounts and Twitter feeds. They went to class. They went to work. They came home, and they left it again.
And then they did something unimaginable.
Hmm, yes, that’s the problem, isn’t it? The only reason why any of us have heard of them is that they stuffed pressure cookers full of ball bearings and tried to murder as many people as they could. With all due respect to their Twitter feeds, that does seem to be the most salient fact about them.
[W]e have entered the time in the cycle when, alleged culprits identified, our need for answers tends to merge with our need for justice. We seek patterns, so that we may find in them explanations. We confuse categories — “male,” “Muslim” — with cause. We focus on contradictions: He had a girlfriend, and killed people. She was a mother, and a murderer. And we finally take refuge in comforting binaries — “dark-skinned” or “light-skinned,” “popular” or “loner,” “international” or “homegrown,” “good” or “evil” — because their neat lines and tidy boxes would seem to offer us a way to do the thing we most crave right now: to put things in their place.
The problem is that there is no real place for the Boston bombings and their aftermath, just as there was no real place for Aurora or Columbine or Newtown. Their events were, in a very literal sense, outliers: They are (in the U.S., at least) out of the ordinary. They were the products of highly unusual sets of circumstances — of complexity, rather than contradictions.
The average person would say: Yes, terrorist attacks in the U.S. are relatively rare. That’s why they are front page news. How can we keep it that way, or, better, make them rarer still? But The Atlantic does not descend to that level of practicality. It wants to demonstrate its superiority over those whose thoughts are so mundane.
But it’s that kind of conversion process — people into People — that led, this week, to the public fears that the bombers would turn out to be Muslim. It’s the process that led, two days ago, to headlines like “In Boston Bombing, Muslims Hold Their Breath” and “For Muslim Americans, Boston Bombings Bring Added Anxiety” — and that led, this morning, to stories about Muslim leaders now “fearing a backlash.” The sad assumption carried in these reports is that Americans lack the intellectual equipment and moral imagination to tell the difference between an individual and a group. It’s an assumption that has, in the past, occasionally proven valid.
Really? Really? It was “that kind of conversion process — people into People–” that caused many to fear that the bombers might be Muslims? I don’t think so. Why were Muslims “holding their breath,” and experiencing “added anxiety”? Because they, unlike liberal “journalists,” are willing to acknowledge that Islam is the main source of terrorism and mass murder in our time. They have been down this road way too many times.
But Ms. Garber thinks the fear that the bombers might turn out to be Muslims represents a “sad assumption” that “Americans lack the intellectual equipment and moral imagination to tell the difference between an individual and a group.” This is arbitrary, unfounded and stupid. Let’s put it this way: Americans possess the intellectual equipment and moral imagination to discern correctly the relationships between individuals and groups. In particular, the relationships between individuals and any fanatical movements or criminal conspiracies of which they are a part.
Now we come to the incoherent climax:
Yet it’s also symptomatic of a tendency, in the media and beyond it, to privilege caricatures over characters.
In proper English usage, “privilege” is a noun, not a verb.
Particularly when we have so much access to people’s interior lives through social media — this Twitter feed seems to be Dzhokar’s, and it is revealing — we have new license to think beyond categories (and metaphors, and stereotypes). We have new ways to bolster our categories — “Muslim,” “Chechen,” “Causasian” — with the many caveats they deserve. The Tsarnaev brothers may have been Muslim, and that circumstance may have, in part, motivated them in their actions on Monday. They may have been Chechen. They may have been male. But that was not all they were. Their lives were like all of ours: full of small incongruities that build and blend to drive us in different directions. Another thing we think we know about the brothers is that they lived in the middle of one of America’s richest cities, near a gas station. And a retirement home. And an auto-body shop. And a really good cafe that serves homemade ice cream. As a place it is tranquil and gritty, urban and not at all. It is messy and busy and real.
One day, the brothers left it for Boston. And to understand why they did that — to have even a prayer of progressing towards a world where two more young men don’t do that — we have to embrace complexity.
The United States is full of people whose lives, like those of the Tsarnaev brothers, are “full of small incongruities,” and who live close to auto body shops, gas stations, retirement homes, and cafes that serve homemade ice cream. And yet almost none of those Americans feel an irresistible urge to fill a pressure cooker full of ball bearings and detonate it, in hopes of killing or maiming hundreds of their fellow citizens. The distinguishing feature here is not the ice cream, it is the pressure cooker full of ball bearings. I have no idea what Ms. Garber thinks it means to “embrace complexity,” but if she means that we should let the perpetrators of the Marathon Massacre, or any who might have aided them, off the hook, then I say that she is a typically clueless liberal.
PAUL adds: I doubt that Garber has any clear idea of what she means in her incoherent closing paragraphs. All she knows, I suspect, is that if she wrote such claptrap in a college paper it would get her an “A” and that if she submitted it as a writing sample, it might well get her a job.
When asserting the obvious is not a respectable option, asserting gibberish becomes the option of choice for people of ordinary intellect who wish to opine. And these days, the market for such gibberish is booming.