Something to think about as we learn more in the coming days about both Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his deceased brother Tamerlan. Everything investigators have released so far suggests that they acted alone, and you can easily find instructions to make the kind of bomb they used on the Internet. But as details get fleshed out about where they went, what they did, and whom they met in the last few years, there's a phrase we'll be hearing a lot: "ties to al-Qaeda." So before people start saying the brothers had "ties to al-Qaeda," we should make sure we know exactly what we're saying when we use that term.
At one point during its coverage of the events in Boston on Friday, NBC News brought in a feed from a local station, and it seemed to be recording not the station's broadcast but someone talking on the phone, perhaps a reporter or someone in the control room. "Oh, you're not listening?" the person being recorded said to whomever he was talking to. "We don't know shit." After a pregnant pause, Brian Williams returned to say smoothly, "Well, that was a fortuitous time to dip into the coverage of New England cable news." But it was a pretty fair summary of television news' overall performance through the course of this whole drama.
There was one part of NBC's coverage, however, that came in for a great deal of praise. At a time when the New York Post was publishing one piece of false information after another (including splashing a photo of two completely innocent men on its front page and accusing them of being suspects) and CNN was coming in for much-deserved ridicule for its hours of pointless, ill-informed blathering, everyone seemed to agree that NBC's national security reporter Pete Williams was a hero. As Politico reported, "Inside the studios of NBC, Williams is being widely referred to as a hero." "Pete Williams Becomes the Reporting Hero of the Boston Bombings," said the Huffington Post. "NBC's Pete Wililams: Media Hero of the Boston Bombing Coverage," said the Atlantic Wire. Other outlets didn't use the "hero" word but still rushed out laudatory stories about Williams.
So what exactly did he do to deserve the title of "hero"?
We've all seen how the bombing in Boston, as so often happens with events like this, brought out the best in the people who were there. But it also—not surprisingly either—brought out the worst in some other people who were back in Washington. It gave them the opportunity to let loose their most vulgar impulses, the satisfaction they get from stoking fear, and their absolute disdain for so many of the things that make America what it is, has been, and continues to be.
You'll recall that after September 11, the phrase "this changes everything" was repeated thousands of times. In too many cases, what that meant was, "This gives me the opportunity to advocate changes pulled from the darkest recesses of my imagination, the things I never would have dared suggest before. This is our chance." We can toss aside those pesky constitutional amendments that protect against unreasonable search and seizure or provide for due process, because we never liked them anyway. Hell, we can even torture people. This is our chance.
Not many people are saying that the Boston bombing "changes everything," but we need to be clear on this: It changes nothing. There is no new reality to which we must adapt.
When you learned that the suspects in the Boston bombing were ethnic Chechens who came to the United States as children, you may have had any number of thoughts. Chances are, though, that "I'm just glad Obamacare hasn't taken effect, otherwise they might have gotten health insurance subsidies" wasn't among them. But that seems to be where Chuck Grassley's mind went. The Iowa Republican senator said today that the Boston attack showed that we ought not pass comprehensive immigration reform too quickly.
Let's be honest and admit that everyone had a hope about who the Boston bomber would out to be. Conservatives hoped it would be some swarthy Middle Easterner, which would validate their belief that the existential threat from Islam is ongoing and that their preferred policies are the best way to deal with that threat. Liberals hoped it would be a Timothy McVeigh-like character, some radical right-winger or white supremacist, which would perhaps make us all think more broadly about terrorism and what the threats really are. The truth turned out to be…well, we don't really know yet. Assuming these two brothers are indeed the bombers, they're literally Caucasian, but they're also Muslim. Most importantly, as yet we know absolutely nothing about what motivated them. Nothing. Keep that in mind.
But for many people, their motivations are of no concern; all that matters is their identity.