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Gomaa: Media must not exploit nationality, religion of Boston Marathon bombers

Mariam Gomaa, Guest Columnist

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About 15 minutes before the Boston bombings, I saw my friend, a Northwestern alumna, post a photo of herself at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. She wasn’t a runner. She was a spectator, there to support the participants’ endeavor for excellence. Her photos had provided instantaneous coverage of the Marathon, and, after the bombings, media outlets followed suit.

As I followed major media outlets in the days after, I also followed the coverage on Twitter at a speed that surpassed traditional outlets. I was surprised to find how quickly journalistic integrity was abandoned in favor of gaining an audience.

Perhaps most astonishing was the racial profiling involved in identifying potential suspects. It began with the Saudi marathon attendee, a 20-year-old male student, who was injured by the force of the bomb. Many individuals offered their aid to the wounded, but somehow this injured man was tackled for looking suspicious. But what exactly was suspicious? His skin color? His accent?

The man’s apartment was searched and his friends questioned, while the media identified him as a suspect, though these claims were eventually retracted. He was innocent. Likewise, Sunil Tripathi, an Indian-American student missing from Brown University since March 16, was accused, despite a lack of evidence to support this allegation.

Then, of course, was the New York Post’s regular reporting of incorrect information, including the front-page article identifying two innocent men as suspects without evidence. One was a 17-year-old Moroccan American.

When the real subjects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,  were finally identified, it was unsurprising to hear that the first identifying feature was their religion — Islam. Despite their respective statuses as legal resident and naturalized citizen of the United States, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev were portrayed as foreigners because of their parents’ origins in Chechnya, a primarily Muslim federal subject of Russia.

But the fact of the matter is that the Tsarnaev brothers are products of America. Having been in this nation for more than a decade, and having spent nearly the entirety of their childhoods here, they are as American as you or me.

Too often, American media outlets turn to ethnicity, nationality, and religion as motives for criminal behavior. The reality, however, is more distressing and complicated. The brothers were isolated, social outcasts who had not yet assimilated. Tamerlan, at least, was quoted saying “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”

Somehow this transformed them. They were no longer the academic stars or diligent athletes they had once been. They were suddenly capable of exploiting their frustration and compounding it until they could find it in themselves to kill.

In today’s world, it seems more than disturbing to point to a person’s origins as a reason for criminality. The reality is: This is not an isolated act. This bombing is comparable to the massacres at Columbine, Oklahoma City, or, most recently, Newtown. Though tragic, they were born in the same soil, out of the same aching tension between desire for success and feelings of disillusionment.

In order to combat the anger that twists human souls into killers, we have to do better. We need more and better access to mental health care. We need better gun laws, if not a ban on firearms. And most importantly, we need to focus on improving the economy, on providing jobs and support for those who have nothing, for people who have lost hope. In treating every large-scale act of violence as an individual problem, we evade the larger issue, and risk causing more damage to our nation than good.

I say this because in times of economic decline, there is an increase in violence and xenophobia. The media is largely responsible, taking advantage of the exaggerated sense of the risk of terrorism in this country. In the case of Boston, a tragic and cruel act of violence became an opportunity to heighten a widespread fear. In doing so, they have been the perpetrators of an ongoing war among citizens to identify a single ethnicity, nationality, or religion that breeds killers.

Following the numerous accusations floating through the media, Americans have turned to blame one another. The problem is Muslims, or immigrants, or “brown” people, or whatever you choose to hate. Individual reports of harassment in public places have been documented.

It’s almost unsurprising. There is always a price to pay in the wake of violence. For some of us, it is being the subjects of hatred. We live in a world where this is acceptable, though we like to think that hatred doesn’t exist now that slavery is abolished, now that gay marriage is being considered. But laws don’t stop hatred. People do.

Like many Muslims, whenever I hear of a major crime, I immediately hope the perpetrators are not Muslim. Now I know it does not matter. Regardless of who commits a crime, the media will exploit their actions, spreading panic to earn viewership.

In doing so, they only increase hostility in this nation, allowing terrorists to fulfill their desires to terrify, and spread enmity. It is our duty to recognize that the root of criminal behavior is neither religion nor ethnicity, and stand against the media. By remaining silent, we inadvertently assent to this process of furthering prejudice; we become complicit.

Mariam Gomaa is a Weinberg junior and a Daily staffer. She can be reached atmariamgomaa2014@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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