We cannot let tragedy become a smokescreen for bigotry

Often during tragedies, we try to find glimmers of hope or sanity – the way we do it is by highlighting the good that happens during a catastrophic event. We couldn’t shield ourselves from evil when the terrorist struck on September 11th, nor could we simply forget the devastating death toll from Hurricane Katrina, and senseless massacres in Aurora and Sandy Hook that have angered, splintered, and gutted us. When faced with awful images of pain, suffering, disaster or chaos, we follow Fred Rogers’ advice and we look for the helpers – we look for the folks who rush out to help. Heroes. This past week has been marked by the Boston Marathon bombings and the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

Despite having more casualties, the plant explosion is overshadowed by the Boston bombings. Three people died and almost 200 people were injured when two homemade bombs were set off near the finish line at the annual Boston Marathon. Quickly blame was assigned – innocent people were accused of committing this heinous act, before the authorities settled on two suspects: Tamerlan Tsarnev and Dzhokhar Tsarnev – brothers from the Russian Caucasus. Tamerlan died in a police shootout and Dzhokhar is the subject of a manhunt that has the city of Boston on lockdown.

Both young men were Muslims. I’m not saying that because I think their faith had something to do with their actions. But unfortunately, a lot of people are thinking that, which is wrong. Muslims are no more prone to violence than anyone else, but the media’s fascination with the brothers’ faiths as well as their Chechen backgrounds make for an interesting and loaded discourse that yet again puts millions of Muslims on the spot. And it’s unfair.

People will no doubt use this tragedy as an excuse to indulge in Islamophobia – we’ve seen too many examples of this happening – men being killed for wearing turbans, mosques being vandalized, veiled women being harassed.

On ABC’s Primetime: What Would You Do? hypothetical situations are orchestrated to gauge the reaction of bystanders around. The scenarios are standard for these kinds of questions: what would you do if you saw someone being mean to an old person? What would you do if you saw gay people being harassed? In one episode, the cameras filmed a bakery in Texas, to capture the reactions of citizens who witness a Muslim woman being denied service. The woman was an actor, as was the bigoted baker, but unfortunately, too many people sided with the baker – in fact, some gave the guy a thumbs up – and the refrain from many was “This is America” or “I’m an American.”

So despite all the progress we’ve made when looking at women’s rights, gay rights, or equality between blacks and whites, there still seems to be a blind spot for Islamophobia. People feel justified in making blanket statements about Islam and Muslims because of instances like these. It’s wearying for those who cannot abide racism, but it’s painful and frightening for those who are targets for the hatred and discrimination, as well as the hate crimes that routinely pop up after tragedies like this.

Part of the strategy behind a terrorist attack is to terrorize people, with a hope that the fear would then translate into something more tangible – a capitulation or compromise of some kind; if we allow tragedies like these to be used or exploited as covers for garden variety bigotry, then a component of the strategy succeeded – we gave up a part of our identity as a direct response to an action.

You know there was a part of me that hoped that the two young men in the camera stills weren’t Muslims. I was hoping that they weren’t Muslims because I knew that if they were, then this would simply feed into the rhetoric of “Islam is bad” or “Muslims are evil.” I’m embarrassed and ashamed of my initial reaction to the photo – it shouldn’t matter what race, religion or political belief these people ascribe to – what matters is that they are caught and punished while the victims get the support they need to move on and heal.

I don’t believe in conspiracy, nor do I believe in faith, end of days. But this week tested my lack of belief – at one point I turned to someone and said, “just what the hell is happening?” But I’m reminding that we need to be vigilant to this sort of thing, because much of the world deals with violence like this on a daily basis. Think about it, how many times do we scan the news Websites, eyes glazed over pictures of a bus blown up in a Middle Eastern country, or a mass killing in some African nation. In our own country we barely register the shocking amounts of deaths due to gun violence – particularly in the inner city. That is something I keep reminding myself whenever I want to indulge in that “What’s happening to the world, lately” thinking – it’s not “lately” it’s continuous. It just doesn’t feel that way, because once a tragedy strikes, a lull settles. And I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing – after all, we cannot live in constant fear of the next attack – we tried that soon after 9/11, curbing Civil Liberties only to realize that these measures are not going to make us safer; we also thought that by pointing our collective finger at a group of people – far more diverse than we give it credit – then maybe we’ll assuage our fears.

Because that’s what this anti-Muslim thinking is meant to do: calm our worries and give us a sense of control. If we just manage to keep all the Muslims out, then maybe we’ll be safe. If we just manage to keep Muslims from boarding airplanes, then maybe we’ll be safe. It’s tricks and games people play when they’re at an airline gate – look around and scan the place for a guy wearing a turban or a woman wearing a veil. Too many of my friends guiltily admitted that soon after 9/11 if they didn’t see an Arab boarding a plane with them, they heaved a sigh of relief (thankfully they all felt a hot spasm of shame because of this).

But back to my original thought – when bad things happen we look for the good. And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to follow Mr. Rogers’ advice, but instead of just looking at the brave firefighters, police officers, EMTs and civilians, I’ll also look at regular folks who reject racism and bigotry in their everyday lives. It’s a start.

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1 Comment

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One response to “We cannot let tragedy become a smokescreen for bigotry

  1. “You know there was a part of me that hoped that the two young men in the camera stills weren’t Muslims. I was hoping that they weren’t Muslims because I knew that if they were, then this would simply feed into the rhetoric of “Islam is bad” or “Muslims are evil.””

    I was hoping the same as you. On the day one of the young men was arrested, over 150 people died in Sichaun Province, China because of an earthquake. It was a smallish article in the Canadian newspapers.

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