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.

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