Monday, April 29, 2013

Celebrity Terrorists

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Just by reading those names, you likely draw an instantaneous connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

The name Adam Lanza probably immediately links your thoughts to the Newtown shootings.

No doubt Timothy McVeigh rapidly pulls your mind back to the Oklahoma City bombing.

When even the simplest, most harmless criminal event occurs, we instantly want to know the identity of the criminal so that s/he can be brought to justice. It follows, then, that when an event occurs that kills, injures and shocks our conscience on a mass-scale, we want to find, punish and often understand the reasons of those responsible. So we pursue the perpetrators with the full extent of our resources, waiting with baited breath to discover their identities.

But what happens once we discover who they are?

Almost as soon as someone learned the identity of the Newtown shooter, his photograph hit the Internet as well as print and TV news. Soon after, a hodgepodge of information about him and his mother began pouring forth. Suddenly, his hauntingly angry image and persona were everywhere.

Somewhat similarly, once investigators gathered enough information the FBI released the names and photos of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, instantly beaming them onto our screens—and into our minds. Though at the time this was done as a means of enlisting the public’s help in finding the suspects, images and profiles of the two brothers have continued to be directed at us every day since the older brother died and the younger brother was captured.

The result of the constant stream of information: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Adam Lanza, Timothy McVeigh, and others of their ilk are people as easily recognized and remembered as Rihanna, A-Rod or Anderson Cooper.

A Google search for "Tsarnaev" reveals over 20 million results.
Through the citing of their names and images in dozens of articles, videos and social media outlets, these terrorists were lifted from absolute obscurity into the national spotlight. In spite of—and alarmingly because of—their heinous crimes, they now enjoy a peculiar celebrity status. I do not mean to suggest that we enjoy their work or celebrate their accomplishments like we do with movie and music stars, sports celebrities or other popular personalities. Dzhokar Tsarnaev is not getting a book deal. But we remember these murderers and terrorists with the same ease as we call to mind Justin Timberlake’s latest song and give them nearly as much, if not sometimes more, attention in our media than we give to our cultural icons. (Whether we should give our cultural icons so much attention is another, separate issue.)

By repeatedly recalling these monsters’ names, we ensure that their names will live on long after the collective whole forgets the names of their victims. That is, if the media that hammers the perpetrators’ names into our minds bothers to mention the names of the victims with any kind of frequency—which it doesn’t.

On one hand, the names of these terrorists serve as symbols of hatred, instability and inhumanity. They are exemplars of how not to behave. Their names will be remembered by most (but likely not all, as one man’s terrorist can be another’s hero) with anger and abhorrence. In that way, they join the list of symbols like Adolf Hitler, the name arguably most synonymous with the epitome of pure evil, and it can be argued that they should be remembered for this reason.

But on the other hand, when symbols like Hitler and Osama bin Laden (not to mention Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, etc.) already exist, there seems to be little utility in turning more names into symbols. This is especially true of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers who, aside from having the distinction of being the first domestically bred, technically foreign bombers to attack civilians on US soil (unlike the Oklahoma City bomber), are not much different from other young terrorists who have deployed bombs or exploded themselves in terrorist attacks overseas.

Intelligence experts should analyze the Boston Marathon bombers’ backgrounds. Psychologists and other experts should use the Newtown shooter as an example for a case study (if he serves as a proper subject—I do not know enough about the discipline to comment). But we, the general public, do not need to remember these terrorists’ names to remember what they did or to learn of warning signs to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

To be clear, I am not advocating that the identities of these attackers should not be released. The public will always be curious, and in events like this has a right to know who threatened its safety. But once we find out who these people are, we don’t need their names thrown at us on repeat, until we have no choice but to remember them whether we want to or not. They and their names should fade away into the same oblivion into which they cast their souls the moment they chose to harm others.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Don't Use Boston Bombers To Generalize

As the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings continues, authorities are increasingly concerned that Tamerlan, 26, and Dzhokhar, 19, Tsarnaev “could represent the kind of emerging threat that federal authorities have long feared: angry and alienated young men, apparently self-trained and unaffiliated with any particular terrorist group, able to use the Internet to learn their lethal craft.

It is unclear whether the suspects are being described as “angry and alienated” because their horrific actions speak to that effect or because the suspects are Chechen-born immigrants to the United States from two different central Asian countries. Since the names of the suspects were released last week, much of the news media has painted a picture of the suspects as unassimilated immigrants who chose to lash out against American society. While this may be partially true, questions of assimilation and the suspects’ immigrant status should play less of a role in the national discourse.

Try as hard as we might to assimilate every immigrant, and try as hard as every immigrant might to complete the process, sometimes it just won’t work. Even if we increase outreach to immigrants through more social programs, better education and balanced attitudes, there are numerous barriers to assimilation that immigrants face: language, culture, ethnicity, socio-economic class, etc. Though it may be easier for younger immigrants to overcome some of those barriers (language and culture, for example), it is still difficult, and sometimes impossible, if one feels caught between two worlds. For instance, my siblings were in their late teens or early twenties when we came to the United States. They all speak English, but with accents. They feel American, but a lot of who they are is also informed by their experiences of growing up in Russia.

Translated: St. Petersberg House of Books: Books, Music, Films - Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NY
But just because someone cannot assimilate does not mean he will develop into a terrorist. (Forgive me if the point seems obvious, but the news media seems to disagree.) The immigrants I’ve known who have had difficulty assimilating have typically done one of several things: they moved to communities in which they’re surrounded by others who share their culture and speak their language (like Brighton Beach), they work harder to integrate, or they move back to their country of origin.

Disenchantment with America coupled with a sense of being unassimilated may create anger and alienation, but in most cases those emotions do not lead to murder and terror. Respect for life and refrain from murder are not distinctive American values. They are human values universal to every society and culture. The failure of the Tsarnaev brothers to assimilate into American society may have, and probably did, contribute to their suspected actions at the Boston Marathon and should be studied further. However, it is dangerous to use these men to draw broad conclusions about immigration and assimilation, especially when many details about their experiences and motives are not yet known.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Gateway to Immigrant Assimilation Lies Beyond Education

In light of the revelation that the suspected Boston Marathon bombers are Chechen-born immigrants to the United States, immigration reform is being evaluated as an even more critical issue than it was before. Prior to the bombings, much of the discussion surrounding immigration had to do with mechanisms of law for things like entry or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But as we continue to examine and scrutinize Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s feelings of being an outsider coupled with his younger brother Dzhokhar's seemingly typical teenage life, a new, non-legal question about immigration is becoming central: how successfully do immigrants assimilate* into the fabric of American society?

In a New York Times op-ed titled “Immigrant Kids, Adrift,” Marcelo M. and Carola Suárez-Orozco identify non-legal factors that affect the happiness, wellbeing and stability of young immigrants and assess how they help with assimilation. The op-ed cites a large-scale 1997 study of newly arrived immigrants, ages 9 to 14, in 20 public middle and high schools in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts and the San Francisco Bay Area. The authors state that in those 20 schools, there was “no sense of shared purpose, but rather a student body divided by race and ethnicity, between immigrants and the native born, between newcomers and more acculturated immigrants.” According to the authors, such environments contribute to declines in academic performance in college and lead to other consequences such as gang membership as they create feelings of alienation and prevent assimilation. The authors note that the Tsarnaev brothers fit the profile of those studied and conclude the article by urging educators and policy makers to assimilate students into the fabric of society through “academic, psychological and other supports.”

The Suárez-Orozcos are correct in urging educators and policy makers to pay greater attention to the needs of young immigrants, but they stop short of addressing another crucial element that affects, perhaps even prevents, assimilation. “Most Americans think we are lazy, gangsters, drug addicts, that only come to take their jobs away,” notes a 14-year-old immigrant boy in the Bay Area who is quoted in the op-ed. Though this is the only mention of broader American attitudes towards immigration in the article, it is the most significant issue raised and glossed over by the authors.

Educational policy and outreach alone cannot be successful in creating a better sense of belonging among young immigrants when the country’s attitudes about immigration remain hostile and laced with racial profiling and stereotypes. Yes, educators can and should work harder to give immigrants more attention and respect, thereby directly and indirectly urging their native born students to do the same. However, students do not learn every life lesson in the classroom and often do not act according to instruction.

My personal experience as an immigrant is illustrative. Fleeing persecution, my family came to the United States when I was five-years-old. I spent my entire life in the American school system, in private Jewish day school. In middle and high school, I was constantly harassed for my Russian heritage, despite sharing a common religious background with my classmates, speaking perfect English with no accent, and being a naturalized United States citizen. I was often called a “communist spy” and told to go back to Russia. “Dirty Russian” was another common insult hurled my way. The classmates who directed these comments at me were native-born Americans, but many of their parents were adult immigrants from Latin-American countries.

These incidents occurred several times a week for years, despite a supportive team of teachers and administrators who were aware of the situation and actively worked to stop and prevent it. They also occurred against the backdrop of Jewish teachings urging my classmates and me to recognize our unity as a people and have respect for every Jew. This suggests that the students who teased me received instruction about their attitudes towards immigrants from somewhere other than the classroom. I was strong enough to get past the constant taunting and hold onto my sense of being American, though it was often not easy. I wonder how many young immigrants like me may not be able to cope as well, especially if the hostility they’re treated to is far more intense than what I went through.

I do not mean to generalize my particular experience to every situation, but I believe it is informative. The student-body in my school was composed of white Jews, and yet it had varied cultural backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. These backgrounds informed or, in the case of students with immigrant parents, failed to inform my classmates’ approach to my immigrant status. Now consider a divided student body like the kind described by the Suárez-Orozcos. It cannot be entirely controlled by educators or policy makers. District lines can be redrawn, but there will always be students of different cultures, religions, socio-economic class, etc. in our public schools. Teachers can teach about equality and unity, but students leave the classroom as members of a larger world that tells them immigrants are bad for America.

Before we can write policies that encourage assimilation, we must rewrite the rhetoric with which immigration is discussed. The legacy of strong anti-immigrant rhetoric in America dates back to the early 19th century, if not further still, and remains essentially unchanged in every generation. Only its target varies. At some point America didn’t want the Poles, then the Jews, now the Mexicans, and most recently the Chechens. I cannot say whether “most Americans” think of immigrants as lazy criminals as the 14-year-old quoted in the op-ed notes, but when immigrants, legal and illegal alike, are endlessly described as a drain on resources taking away from American prosperity, it’s not a stretch to imagine people concluding that immigrants are no good for “us.”

*Note: I personally do not like the word 'assimilation,' as it connotes erasure of immigrants' culture in favor of its American counterpart, but 'assimilation' is the term being used by the news media. For the purposes of this article, I equate 'assimilation' with 'acclamation,' thereby defining the term as a mechanism for immigrants to build a sense of American national identify that coexists with their ethnic cultural background.

Monday, April 15, 2013

At a Loss for Words for Boston

At separate times and for different reasons, a few friends suggested today that I am a man of words who uses them well. I like to think those lovely compliments are true most of the time, but I find myself at a loss for words right now as I watch the news and reflect on the day’s events at the Boston Marathon. Lots of words—among them fear, terror, carnage, anguish, prayer, pain, grief, worry, relief, and sadness—come to mind as buzzwords to describe the horrific attack (more buzzwords), but something feels empty about them all.

Maybe it’s because none of those words characterize anything truly essential. Images of the attack and its aftermath speak for themselves, and speak louder. They tell us that those buzzwords are at least part of the reason for this brutality. Nevertheless, the buzzwords provide no deeper reason for the madness, no analysis of its implications, and no clue about who caused it.

On the other hand, maybe it’s because another prominent buzzword comes to mind: pity. I feel terribly sorry for the victims and families whose day of personal triumph turned into a life changing day of tragedy. But how much comfort can I provide with my words? What can I say—what can any of us say that wholly expresses the distress we feel about this event?

Plenty of words will be said and written about Boston in the days and weeks to come, but I wonder if any of them will be adequate for an event like this.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

'Glee' School Shooting Episode Aired at the Right Time

Earlier this week I wrote about how effectively Grey’s Anatomy beamed information about struggles of the Syrian civil war into American living rooms, thereby raising our awareness about the escalating situation in that country.

Now, a week after that Grey’s Anatomy episode aired, another prime time TV show showcased a major issue with chilling effect. Though some reactions to this week’s episode of Glee, titled “Shooting Star,” have been negative, I believe this episode depicts an important message that aired at a critical and appropriate time.

Like each of the series’ other episodes, this Glee entry starts off with song and cheer. The cast of teenage characters go about their daily lives, eager for glee club practice after school. But halfway through the episode, the sound of gunshots sends the characters—and the audience—into panic.

The next ten minutes are the tensest moments I’ve felt watching a television show since Grey’s Anatomy featured an episode on the same theme several years ago. The lights are dim, background music and sound effects are gone, and we only see and hear the character’s anguished sobs as they hide from an unknown assailant.


By the end of the ordeal, we find out there is no shooter. Rather, the gun—which is brought to school by Becky Jackson, a student with down syndrome who is scared of change—is set off accidentally and does not hurt anyone. Jackson does not mean to shoot anyone, and apologizes to her coach and longtime mentor for bringing the gun and for its accidental discharge.


The Daily News states that this episode could have been done at any time and accuses Ryan Murphy, the series’ creator and show runner, of creating this episode now because “it had [the recent] Newtown [shooting] as a raw, visceral reference point.” The article expresses disappointment that we experience the ordeal by focusing only on the main cast of characters and concludes that the series “us[ed] [the] tragedy for its own advantage.” It claims that the accidental discharge is “just an unfortunate mistake by someone who didn't fully grasp the consequences of casual firearms use. But for viewers who didn't know this, it was a setup, a way to scare us at a moment when we are most vulnerable to being scared.”

While I agree that this episode could have been made at any time in the series’ four year run, I think it is most effective now in the wake of the events in Newtown. The Newtown shooting is an unimaginable horror, but it brought the gun control debate to the forefront once more (giving it more attention than it got prior, at least in my opinion). In its wake, the Obama administration started paying attention to gun control and even congress is working on the issue. Nevertheless, gun loving people across the nation refuse to budge an inch—some even want to nullify federal law to escape gun regulation. Glee’s depiction of the suspense and fear felt by its characters is exactly the kind of visceral representation that can engage people’s minds where written words and news reports fail.

It does not matter that the episode is a setup. That’s the whole point. It presents the viewer with a powerful ‘what if’ scenario. And how many school shooters can be said to “fully grasp the consequences” of firearm use? At the end of the episode, the audience is relieved that none of the characters we care about are hurt. And maybe we walk away considering the consequences of a situation like this occurring in real life, especially when the gun is used intentionally.

Glee airs Thursday nights on Fox.

Monday, April 8, 2013

'Grey's Anatomy' Shocks; Subtely Raises Awareness About War in Syria

It has surprised audiences with tales of exploding bombs, cold-hearted shootings, and disastrous plane crashes. But last week, longtime ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy did something truly shocking--and important. The episode titled “She’s Killing Me,” aired on April 4, continues to follow the personal and professional lives of the main cast of characters, but this time with a key difference. As the surgeons of Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital go about caring for patients, they have the additional task of training two Syrian surgeons in battlefield trauma medicine. The surgeons were flown out of the war zone in Syria to learn from a highly qualified team of American doctors. To begin the process, the Grey-Sloan team assembles what it deems are basic tools, but quickly discovers that the Syrian doctors have far fewer tools to work with. Numerous scalpels are removed off the surgical tray, and looks of confusion and surprise take hold on the American doctors’ faces as one of the Syrian surgeons turns off the lights and holds a flashlight over the simulated patient.
A Syrian surgeon holds a flashlight over his patient to provide light for surgery
Grey’s Anatomy is not known for subtlety, typically showcasing overly dramatic, often utterly improbable story arcs that involve disaster after disaster mixed with personal triumph and despair. Nevertheless, last week’s episode serves as a shockingly subtle and extremely effective public service announcement about the ongoing, escalating war in Syria. By visually demonstrating the hardships faced by Syrian doctors trying to keep their patients alive--patients that include many children--Grey’s Anatomy undoubtedly called the situation to the attention of millions of fans and perhaps demonstrated a new way in which art can raise public consciousness and affect social and political change.

A clip of the episode is available here.