Site of explosions in Boston at finish line of marathon (Creative Commons-licensed Flickr Photo by hahatango)

(update below)

Two blasts from explosive devices occurred at the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday killing at least three people and wounding well over a hundred people. Medical teams reportedly carried out ten amputations. Ball bearings were being removed from injured. The serious wounds look like injuries one receives in a war zone.

Within an hour after the explosions, full details were not even in from law enforcement on what they had been able to uncover before CNN pundits and analysts were filling the space in time they are given on cable news networks with hypothetical thoughts about this act of terrorism—what had happened, what could be found by law enforcement and what might be discovered in the investigation.

Jane Harman, former congresswoman who is now with the Woodrow Wilson International Center, said during Jake Tapper’s program, “The Lead” (and just a few hours after the explosions):

…I don’t think we know everything yet. There may be more devices. There may be devices in other cities. I just wanted to offer something about home grown terrorism, if that may turn out to be what it is.

It is easy on the internet to find out, quote, “How To Make A Bomb In The Kitchen Of Your Mom.” There’s an English language magazine called “Inspire,” which is produced in Yemen by folks who have lived in the United States a long time, and one of their recent issues they’ve come out with a tenth issue, encouraging people to do small bomb tacks on transportation routes… [emphasis added]

Tapper actually asked Harman, “In fact, I believe this Friday is the anniversary of both Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing. What’s going through your mind as you watch these events unfold?” Preferring to promote the theories in her head, Harman ignored the core of the question, “I would say, based on experience in this modern era with al Qaeda and al Qaeda-like organizations, we should anticipate, if this turns out to be the signature, some other attacks either in sporting events or in high-target cities or in — on holiday afternoons where there are mass gatherings,”  and, “A signature of al Qaeda, if this may be al Qaeda — and we have no proof yet or some associated organization — is near- simultaneous attacks.”

This was almost indistinguishable from what racist reactionary Congressman Peter King, who never missed an opportunity to hold a hearing on the threat posed by Muslims to the homeland, said on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

…this reminds me very much of the attack on Times Square in 2010 by Shahzad. And also we have to remember “Inspire” which is the magazine for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has called for terrorist attacks on athletic events in the United States, on iconic events.

And this is both, the Boton marathon on Patriots Day is the — almost the ultimate as far as an iconic, athletic all-American event. And also mass — mass killing of civilians.

Again, I — we don’t know for certain but, to me, I think we have to be looking toward either al Qaeda or an off shoot of al Qaeda or a self- starter here in the United States, a home-grown terrorist. [emphasis added]

If one did not know better, it would be easy to think Harman and King will be disappointed if law enforcement finds Al Qaeda had no involvement whatsoever. They desperately need it to be Al Qaeda to reinforce their views that America must continue to wage perpetual war against America’s enemies.

In the next hour, Harman continued, “The possibility of a homegrown attack, even though these are low-grade explosives, that’s what law enforcement are saying, still could be still connected to some larger organization or to material on the internet that’s prepared by a larger organization.”

And, if all that seems appalling, there was this statement she made, “A lot of the victims, if this turns out, if it turns out to be anything related to al Qaeda or terror groups in that part of the world – a lot of the victims of these attacks are Muslims, innocent Muslims. So this is a problem we’re going to have to face for a while, and we do need to be resilient as we figure out how to deal with it.”

As Brian Michael ­Jenkins, a terrorism specialist at the Rand Corp, told CBS, “Radical Muslims ‘will be every­one’s favorite suspect, but there are many other possibilities.’” What Harman was saying reflected her prejudice as much as it reflected her inability to control herself and hold back remarks that could needlessly frighten Americans.

Similarly, CNN national security analyst Fran Townsend mentioned Nidal Hasan, “who went on a shooting rampage because he was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni preacher,” when describing how a “lone wolf” could have been behind the explosions. She was the only analyst on television to name drop Al-Awlaki, which revealed her prejudices when analyzing attacks that appear to clearly be terrorism.

While those at CNN were hypothesizing “terrorism” without all the facts or evidence, law enforcement and the White House were much more cautious in their language. Asked if this was a terrorist attack, Boston Police Department commissioner Ed Davis said, “We’re not being definitive about this right now, but you can reach your own conclusions based on what happened.”  Obama refrained from using “terrorism” to describe the explosions when he gave his initial statement. [Note: He used the word "terrorism" in a statement on April 16, the day after.]

That did not mean the explosions were not being investigated and treated as “terrorism,” but, unlike CNN, President Obama’s administration recognized how charged the word “terrorism” would be if he used that word. Thus, to hypothesize or speculate that it was terrorism by any domestic or international group before there was proof or evidence in his statement would be irresponsible. As Jessica Yellin said on CNN, “While an investigation is just beginning, it is a term of art to call it terrorism and it’s clear that officials are being careful not to label it that way publicly while facts are still being gathered.”  It would also add to hysteria in the aftermath of the attack.

CNN’s Erin Burnett on her 7 pm EST program, “OutFront,” said:

…[O]ur Tom Fuentes has said, former assistant director of the FBI, that this was a coordinated preplanned, multiple explosive device event and that is a terrorist attack no matter how you consider it.

I mean, we have no idea who is responsible. It could be a disgruntled worker. It could be an anarchist. It could be a person inspired by foreign elements. We don’t know.

But if it’s one of the first two, if it’s someone domestic, with a personal issue or an issue against the government, in your view, is that still terrorism? [emphasis added]

What Burnett articulated was a clear indication of the effects of the Global War on Terrorism on the American psyche and how it has been predominantly a war on Muslims in foreign countries. Missing from her question was the possibility that it could be a right wing person. She did neglect to note that it could be someone like Timothy McVeigh, a Christian extremist who had once served in the US military, but that is because, as a news anchor, she has been conditioned to float the possibility of a foreign Muslim radical before ever suggesting it could be a US veteran with Christian fundamentalist beliefs.

*

Why would it be important to be overly-cautious? The answer is there is a real impact on human lives of suspects, especially those who are Muslim, when people go on widely viewed news networks after bombs have wounded and killed people to spout hawkish or prejudicial hypotheses.

The New York Post was the first to report there was a Saudi national that law enforcement held in custody. A “20-year-old suspect was under guard at an undisclosed Boston hospital,” according to “law enforcement sources.” The Post added, “It was not immediately clear why the man was hospitalized and whether he was injured in the attack or in his apprehension.” Yet, befitting of a tabloid newspaper, it called the Saudi a suspect.

A Boston Police Department spokesperson reacted, “Honestly, I don’t know where they’re getting their information from, but it didn’t come from us.” And, “At this time, we haven’t been notified of any arrests or anyone apprehended.”  BPD commissioner called the report “not true.” But, that did not stop NBC News from amplifying what the Post was reporting.

It turns out there was a Saudi national in custody but, crucially, he was not a suspect. CBS News’ John Miller had details. A “witness saw a person acting suspiciously when the explosions happened along the marathon route.” He was, perhaps, realizing the last place a young Saudi should be after bombs have just gone off, especially in America, is near the site of the explosions.

Miller reported the witness saw him “running away from the device.” He added, “Now, a reasonable person would be running away. But this person had noticed him before. This is a civilian — chases him down, tackles him, turns him over to the Boston police.” So, this “witness” physically manhandled this Saudi and handed him over to authorities.

The Saudi had a “burn injury.” Miller speculated, “That means this person was pretty close to wherever this blast went off, but not so close as to suffer the serious injuries that other people did.” But, he was “being cooperative, answering their questions, and denying involvement.”

Law enforcement raided his apartment on Monday night. His roommate said he did not think this Saudi, a “devout Muslim” who is a “fan of soccer” and from Medina, Saudi Arabia, committed the attacks. He had not been charged with any crime, and, after the raid, there is no announcement from law enforcement at all that he was responsible, even though his clothes were taken from him for forensic testing.

What appears to have happened is a person saw a Muslim or brown-skinned person after the attack. That person projected  fears on to him and, in an act of vigilantism, tackled him to the ground. Law enforcement did not want to make a scene. He was injured. He went to the hospital. Law enforcement essentially profiled him, which is not altogether unreasonable. But, if he was not involved, what happens?

The man should be released. He is innocent, but law enforcement knows that the young Saudi is the one who is being floated around recklessly on social media as the person responsible. He is here on a “valid student visa” but that means nothing in this moment. People are going to be talking about the system for awarding visas and whether it should become more restrictive to prevent attacks.

So, that’s why it matters when analysts on television hypothesize in the space and in time that exists in the moment right after bombs explode but before law enforcement announces, “We have a suspect.” That is why one is overly cautious and does not use the word “terrorism” (which suggests political motivation) until there is actual evidence of political motivations by the person(s) responsible for the violence.

That is why one must give equal time to all theories: whether they be political or religious, whether they be how a sociopath could have committed the acts or they could have happened out of revenge, whether taking place on Patriots’ Day played a role in the decision to attack the marathon, whether it was someone anti-government like Eric Robert Rudolph or whether it was a person who read some kind of jihadist handbook on the Internet.

It matters that people acknowledge Rudolph, Timothy McVeigh and even Joseph Stack, who on April 15—Tax Day—crashed a plane into an IRS building, just as much as one might acknowledge it could be an extremist inspired by an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Finally, it matters because hypothesizing that it came from Al Qaeda or other groups, which have given the government the justification for the use of lethal force, as well as the growth of the national security state, only emboldens terrorism hawks to use the moment to push for increases in security at the expense of liberty.

Rep. King said on “The O’Reilly Factor,” this is “why we cannot be cutting back on police, we can’t be stopping the police the way people try to do in New York from being aggressive. They have to be aggressive. This enemy is despicable.” To which O’Reilly responded, “No I know, I mean they don’t want to stop and frisk. They don’t want this. They don’t want that. And you’re absolutely right. Now, maybe this will recede as it did in the — in the first attack on 9/11.”

There is a section of the government and American population that may want this to be the result of a Saudi. It would leave open the possibility that Al Qaeda was involved and confirm all the continued investments in going after Al Qaeda, even though it is in complete tatters. It would justify maintaining and escalating global war against offshoots of Al Qaeda, that may only be growing because America continues to utilize force to fight them and they want to fight America.

But, if the Saudi national is completely innocent, he becomes an example of just how much America remains in a collective state of post-trauma that it has been unable to shake since 9/11. His life will be forever changed. He will have experienced what it is like to be an “other”—particularly, a Muslim—in a country that remains mostly convinced there are people in Muslim countries all over the world that will stop at nothing to attack freedom in the United States and any brown-skinned practicing Muslim could be the next person behind that attack because, as someone in middle America might say, “You just never know.”

Update 

For a good follow-up story, read the column by Amy Davidson of The New Yorker on “The Saudi Marathon Man.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the fever had broken. Report after report said that he was a witness, not a suspect. “He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time,” a “U.S. official” told CNN. (So were a lot of people at the marathon.) Even Fox News reported that he’d been “ruled out.” At a press conference, Governor Deval Patrick spoke, not so obliquely, about being careful not to treat “categories of people in uncharitable ways.

He did not do it and was never a suspect. He was the victim of phobia or racism. And he surrendered much of his liberty to law enforcement so he could make whatever he was going through after being burned in the blasts go away.