The murderer is the new celebrity. He emerges out of nowhere with a rags to mass murder story, and is swiftly accorded all the trappings of fame. Reporters track down anyone who knew him to learn about his childhood and his main influences. Relatives and friends both contribute fuzzy anecdotes, mostly indistinguishable from the ones they would present if he were competing on American Idol or running for president.
The Tsernaev brothers, the living one and the dead one, are already receiving that treatment. Like most murderers they have already become more famous than their victims. More famous than the rescuers. The original Tamerlane is better known than any of his countless victims. The new one is already eclipsing his victims. Before long one of those Chechen bards whose videos he tagged into his playlist on YouTube will write a ballad about the Boston massacre and the circle will be complete.
That ballad, murderous and vile, will still be more honest than most of the media coverage about the two Chechen Muslims has been. The media’s coverage is weighed down by its old fetish of murder as celebrity. The media covers murderers and celebrities in the same way. It writes exhaustively about them, but rarely meaningfully. The murderer, like the celebrity, is famous for being famous. And fame clips context and suppresses meaning. It becomes its own reference. A thing is famous for being known. It is known for being famous. It enters the common language as a reference. A metaphor.
In the case of the Tsernaevs, the surface coverage, the endless rounds of interviews with friends and relatives, with anyone who ever met them or retweed them, is mandatory because it avoids the more difficult question of why they killed.
The better news outlets answer with convenient terms like “radicalization” or “self-radicalization” and much of the public, primed to react to meaningless political jargon as if it had meaning, will think that they understand. A radical, they know, is a bad person, except for a brief period when surfers and ninja turtles could use it and still be good people. They don’t quite know why that is, but they also don’t know why high debt is good for the economy or why Islam is a religion of peace.
Radical and extremist are convenient terms for dismissing people and subjects without discussing them. Mental shortcuts like that can be convenient. No one really wants to spend every waking moment debating the people who think that the moon landing was faked or that we are ruled over by miniature T-Rex’s who somehow look just like people. But when the body count gets high enough, dismissing it as extremism or radicalism doesn’t hold up. The question must be discussed.
The experts point to foreign policy, but Muslim violence began a thousand years before the United States existed as an independent political entity. The younger Tsernaev sibling scrawled something about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, prompted or unprompted, but Iraq is yesterday’s news and America is in Afghanistan because of the Muslim attacks of September 11. We can keep retracing every event and connecting it to a prior event, but the constraints of history will swiftly take us back to before Independence Hall, Columbus and for that matter the English language.
If we are to flounder looking around for a first cause, we must either fetch up against the founding of Islam or try to make a case for Islamic violence predating Islam. Neither is very tenable. Dzhokhar can claim that he and his brother were defending Islam by murdering an 8-year-old, Hitler claimed that he was defending Germany by invading Poland and Japan is still waiting around for South Korea to thank it for protecting it from Western imperialism.
Prisons are full of 300 pound men who beat their 90 pound wives to death in self-defense and spree killers who felt bullied and misunderstood and defended themselves with killing sprees. The kind of evil we see in movies, the serial killer who gleefully whisper about demonic pacts and the joy of killing, are a rarity. Even human monsters are human. They explain things in terms of their egos. They are always defending themselves against some form of oppression and looking for someone to sympathize with their outrage.
Muslim terrorists are no different. The Taliban just poisoned a girls school as part of their campaign to defend Afghanistan from women who can read and write. Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus in defense of Palestine. Tamerlan Tsarnaev put down a bomb next to an 8-year-old boy in defense of Islam.
Islam, as one of the great world religions, has a long history of needing to be defended against small boys, blind female poets and elderly cartoonists. Sometimes Muslims have to defend Islam against each other, the way they are now doing in Syria. Other times defending Islam requires demolishing its archeological sites, the way that the Saudis are doing. Either way defending Islam is difficult work.
Everyone in a war usually claims to be defending against something. But the younger Tsarnaev was not really angry about Afghanistan or Iraq. He wasn’t defending them. He was defending Islam. If you want to defend Afghanistan, then all you have to do is board a plane to Pakistan and then make the right contacts and find your way across the border to join a band of likeminded fellows fighting to defend your new country from women who can read. But to defend Islam, you can stay at home in Boston and kill little boys..
What is this thing called Islam? We can call it a religion, but that doesn’t tell us much. Defining religion is a famously tricky affair. The bombmaking instructions in Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine begin by telling the would-be defender of Islam that the key ingredient in building a pressure cooker bomb, like the one used at the Boston Marathon, is trust in Allah. There is a kind of faith in that, but it’s more like the kind of prayer you expect to hear Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson utter to a god that they made in their own murderous image. Serial killers praying to a patron deity of serial killers to help them murder little boys in defense of a religion whose faith is in the murder of little boys.
But the whole thing need not be all that mysterious. Western man spent much of the last century threatening to fight to the death over the political and economic system that he would live under. Dispense with the label of religion and the sight of two angry young men setting off bombs in an American city is not all that alien. Neither is their motive.
There are two Islams that we can conceive of; the private and the public. It is it not difficult to see which of these the Tsarnaevs were defending. Despite the morbid fantasies of the real Islamophobia industry, practiced by CAIR and the left, no one was holding down either of the brothers and shoving pork in their mouths or forbidding them from reading the Koran. The government has carved out broad swaths of entitlements for Islamic religion in a country where Iftar is celebrated in the White House and the Department of Justice sues any store that thinks twice of frowning at a Hijab.
It’s the public Islam that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were defending. The private Islam forbids Muslims to eat pork or drink liquor The public Islam bars pork or liquor from being sold. The private Islam tells women to cover their hair. The public Islam establishes an entire system of police and judges to compel them to cover their hair.
Western liberals like to think of Islam as a private religion, in the tradition of most of its extant religions, but it isn’t. Islam cannot function for very long as a private religion just as Communism could not function for very long as a private experiment on a few communal farms. It is an all or nothing system. Its fundamental expression is public. In private, it withers and dies.
The private Islam need not be defended with bombs. The public Islam must be. And as with so many totalitarian systems, when it speaks of freedom, it means slavery, when it talks of peace, it means war, and when it claims defense, it means attack.
Why did Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev detonate bombs at the Boston Marathon? They were engaged in an old disagreement over political systems. Terrorists of the left set off bombs to force a political revolution. Their Islamist fellow-travelers are doing the same thing. Dig away enough of the trappings of the celebrity murderer and you come to the ideas buried underneath all the rubble.
The Tsarnaevs are not the first terrorists to kill Americans in the name of a political idea. If they are radicals and extremists, than so are the likes of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. What difference is there between the radicals who detonated bombs to impose the rule of the left and those who detonate bombs to impose the rule of Islam?
means. And when it comes to the Tsarnaevs, the media will discuss their means, but not their ends. Dealing with the violence of the left would only make the left look bad. And dealing with the agenda of the terrorists would make the left’s plan for a multicultural society seem unworkable. It would make it clear that terrorism is not random, but a violent means of imposing an idea. And it is the idea that is the issue.
If we are going to discuss Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, let us spend a little less time on their endless parade of relatives and former friends, and a little more time on the idea in whose defense they chose to kill and maim so many. Let us discuss Islam, not just as an abstract idea, but as a concrete political system. Let us discuss it the way that we discuss the plans and platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties. Let us look at Saudi Arabia, at Pakistan and at the new Egypt to see what this thing that the terrorists would like to impose on us is.
Despite thousands dead, a searching examination of that sort is exactly what the media would like to avoid. It does not want another “Better Red than Dead” or “Better Dead than Red” debate. It wants us to speak of foreign policy as an isolated American act and of random violence as arising from thin air. It does not want us to understand the nature of the struggle. It does not want us to know why we die. It is determined to keep from us the reason why Muslims kill.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish.