In a column published Friday, Megan Garber, a staff writer at “The Atlantic” proffers some sage advice to members of the media: Stop pinning labels on people whose names end up in the headlines because of dastardly deeds. The title of the piece — “The Boston Bombers Were Muslim: So?” — is meant as an admonition. And so are the opening paragraphs, which catalog all the things “we think we” know about the brothers Tsarnaev (Tamerlan was a “gifted athlete” and “very religious,” Dzhokar is “very quiet” and career-oriented).
Although some of the descriptors she cites are well-documented (for example, “Dzhokar received a scholarship from the City of Cambridge”), she dismisses all in the third paragraph as “provisional facts,” adding:
They are the products of the chaos of breaking news, and may well also be the products of people who stretch the truth — or break it — in order to play a role in the mayhem. They are very much subject to change. But they are also reminders of something it’s so easy to forget right now, especially for the many, many members of the media — professional and otherwise — who currently find themselves under pressure of live air or deadline: Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are not simply ‘the Marathon bombers,’ or ‘murderers,’ or ‘Chechens,’ or ‘immigrants,’ or ‘Muslims.’ They might turn out to be all of those things. They might not. The one thing we know for sure is that they are not only those things. They had friends and families and lives. They had YouTube accounts and Twitter feeds. They went to class. They went to work. They came home, and they left it again.
Well, shucks, don’t we all feel like a bunch of jerks now?
Putting aside the smarmy and misplaced sympathy, there is actually a kernel of truth to Garber’s cracker barrel psychologizing. So far no definitive link has been established between the Tsarnaevs’ religious beliefs and their deadly actions last Monday. But similar claims have held true for countless other news stories centering on extreme violence, yet liberal writers were undeterred from jumping on the label bandwagon so long as the “villain” was a white male (or even when he was not: George Zimmerman anyone?).
To take a recent example, right after the Newtown shootings, liberal commentators resorted not only to labels but stereotypes. David Sirota, who recently enshrined himself in the pantheon of leftist bigotry by expressing his fervent hope that the Marathon bombers would turn out to be white males, appeared on MSNBC last December to offer support for the systematic profiling of white males.
The publication Garber writes for has been guilty of wholesale labeling, as evidenced by an article that appeared at the publication’s blog, The Atlantic Wire, in the wake of the Tuscon shootings.
One could argue in Garber’s defense that her column is intended as a “warning to both benches.” But she tramples on that rationale by ignoring her own advice, writing:
The problem is that there is no real place for the Boston bombings and their aftermath, just as there was no real place for Aurora or Columbine or Newtown. Their events were, in a very literal sense, outliers: They are (in the U.S., at least) out of the ordinary. They were the products of highly unusual sets of circumstances — of complexity, rather than contradictions. [Emphasis added]
She has decided in advance of any known motive for the bombings that they were the product of lone wolves. This assumption stands in blunt contradiction to her own admissions elsewhere that the Tsarnaevs’ Islamic faith may have “motivated them in their actions on Monday.”
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