Sunday, April 21, 2013

Such good English

The Americanness or lack thereof of the still-living accused Boston bomber is really several different questions. The first was straightforward enough: who is this person? And when that wasn't known, one possibility of course was that he and his brother arrived from abroad specifically to carry out a terrorist act. That's not an unreasonable or xenophobic outcome to list among the possibilities when news reports emerge connecting Chechnya with an act that sure looked/looks like terrorism.

But once we did learn the story - a 19-year-old American citizen of Chechen origin who'd been in the States since age 8 - it seemed to me that this guy is of course American. Perhaps (well, definitely, assuming allegations are true) a terrible American, a genocidal maniac or a pushover prepared to become one to impress his older brother. But yes, sorry, an American. Who isn't an American 'of X origin'?

Which is why I couldn't figure out the coverage. He speaks (or spoke - seems he's not saying much) good, American English without an accent? Well how on earth else was he going to speak? He had lots of American friends? Yes, as does tend to happen if someone attends school for that many years in the U.S. This wasn't some kind of elaborate cover for a future act of terrorism, some kind of disguise hiding his authentic self. Presumably, given that timeline, this was his authentic self.

And I'm reminded of the expression, "an assimilated Jew," a phrase that suggests that all Jews, no matter their upbringing, start from some fundamental, 100%-Jewish state, and any evidence they give of having any other primary identity (American, transgender, vegetarian), anything they wear that isn't Hasidic garb, is some kind of sneaky artifice. This young man is not like an American. He is an American. One who all signs point to, just committed a truly atrocious crime.

The question, it would seem, is then whether this crime was a way of announcing treason, announcing intent to wage war on behalf of a foreign entity. But that should be a question, not a default assumption when a criminal is... white but not Christian? White but with a foreign-seeming name? Someone with relatives living abroad?

And then there's been this other aspect of the coverage-broadly-defined, about how the attackers were ungrateful to this country that welcomed them. I mean, if you've lived somewhere since childhood, is this even a matter of gratitude, or gratitude above and beyond what anyone born in the U.S. might feel? Should your debt to America be different from that of someone born here? Should you be on best behavior above and beyond the usual? Put another way: it's evil to commit a crime of this nature no matter what. But is it somehow more evil if you happened to have been born on foreign soil?

The obvious issues this brings up are how they go about this specific trial, and immigration policy more broadly. But the less-obvious, no-less-important one is national identity. Who gets to count as all-American? (The older brother's wife, says a British tabloid.) Given how many Americans have hyphenated identities, given the negligible cultural difference between someone born in the States to foreign parents and someone who came over as a young child, where exactly is this line to be drawn, if not at citizenship?

Do we really want to slide into being like so many (all?) other countries, in which one is a "foreigner" regardless of one's papers, regardless of how many generations your family's been in the country, assuming one is not of the majority religion and ethnicity? Do we want to be like Europe, where if your family isn't from that square kilometer since forever, you may be blamed for failing to assimilate, when in fact you were never in a million years going to be allowed let alone encouraged to integrate? No we don't - my pride in America comes largely from the fact that we don't do this. Or: of course we do this, but not nearly so much as other places, because of our (almost) everyone's descended from immigrants heritage, because of such things as birthright citizenship, and simply because political correctness here - and this is a point in PC's favor - discourages claims that only one group of citizens counts as authentic. Our relative lack of radicalized Westerners-of-foreign-origin comes precisely from our (relative) willingness to accept that anyone can be American. Good luck with that in France and so forth.

Which brings us to a certain complicating factor. Who exactly is this unhyphenated majority? Who are these Real Americans whose crimes might be blamed on such unhyphenated-white-guy concerns as mental illness (not that only white Christian men suffer from it - merely that this is the go-to explanation for bad behavior when one cannot point to the inner city or Islam) and hatred of liberals? I do like the woman who's so American that she wants no. more. foreigners., but she's from, oh, Greece. And then there's the inconvenient fact that one of the victims was a Chinese national here as a graduate student. Being honest-to-goodness foreign is no shield against being murdered in America for representing wholesome all-Americana... if, again, this attack was even about hurting America-as-a-nation.

Clearly, powers-that-be must investigate all angles, and sure, maybe it turns out they were part of some larger operation. But in terms of how we talk about it in the mean time, might something be gained by referring to this as an act of domestic terrorism? Not attributing to two evil doofuses (or "losers," as their amazing broigus uncle put it) something as profound as an act of war.


Helen said...

Beautifully-written. Like the woman in the article, I, too, immigrated to America when I was a child. I can't put it quite as eloquently as you, but it breaks my heart to see this act of evil, certainly, and act of domestic terrorism, possibly, used as a case against immigrants and for xenophobia.

It is terrifying to think what America could become in a few decades from reading that article in NYTimes.

Phoebe said...

Glad you appreciated the post, and yes, it's terrifying.

Sigivald said...

He speaks (or spoke - seems he's not saying much) good, American English without an accent?

That's impossible.

He lived in Boston, after all. They barely speak English there at all, as far as I can tell from trying to decipher their very significant accent.

(I kid. A little. But the idea that Bostonian English is "no accent"? No, no. People in Utah or Oregon have "no accept".

Yeah, sure, no Chechen accent...)

Miss Self-Important said...

This young man is not like an American. He is an American. One who all signs point to, just committed a truly atrocious crime.
Yes, but is there a difference b/w political crime and other crime? For example, I don't recall a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric in response to the VA Tech shooting, which was also committed by an immigrant. There was just a lot of mental illness rhetoric, perhaps b/c the shooting did not seem to have any political or anti-American motivation.

But in the case of political crimes like bombings, the source of the ideology that inspired the crime is what comes in for attack. This is as true of all-American political crime like the Weather Underground bombings or the Oklahoma City bombings as it is of foreign ideology-inspired crime. We are concerned about domestic left and right wing extremism, but we can't prevent these extremist groups from acting by removing them from the country b/c they're already citizens. So the FBI monitors them and we socially ostracize people with such views as our means of preventing their ideologies from issuing in acts of terrorism. But with foreign-based extremists, we do have the legal means of preventing some of their activity through exclusion and deportation, so why not consider that means? It doesn't sound like you oppose that, as long as it doesn't result in a blanket ban on immigration, which I'm quite certain it will not. The media's mentions of immigration status seems to be a natural outgrowth of the association of these men with a foreign ideology.

Some of the other stuff you link doesn't seem particularly nativist - the dispute over trying him in federal court or as an enemy combatant is a legal issue not related to someone's degree of cultural assimilation. That he had "American friends" sounds like a contrast directed at his older brother's widely-reported claim not to have "a single American friend," not a general surprise that an immigrant would have American friends.

As for the accent, I've encountered people who aren't aware that children lose their foreign accents when they pick up a new language while adolescents and adults often don't, no matter how long they've been in the country. In the context of his classmate's quote, it may have also been a way of indicating that this guy was not a recent immigrant, not that she thought he was un-American. The early reporting on these guys emphasized their Chechen connections, so she may have been trying to convey his non-foreignness.

Phoebe said...


My point here is merely that someone who's an American citizen is American until proven otherwise. This is different from innocent until proven guilty. A court is something else, but I don't have a problem with people who've read/watched reliable reports, watched whichever videos, referring to this guy as an evil murderer, or a terrorist, as this was no doubt aimed to terrorize. My argument here is that we need to be really, really careful before attributing foreign motivations to a crime committed in the States by an American.

To lump in someone like this man with "foreign-based extremists," as you do, is to say that if someone's motivation is something as vague as "Islam," this is foreign as opposed to homegrown. As you see in the post, I don't rule out the possibility that this crime straightforwardly came out of some foreign entity. It's not a problem to ask the question, and obvious why one would here and not re: VA Tech. I mean, there's the older brother, who was not a U.S. citizen. But the likely entities seem to be denying this, rather than claiming the act.

As for the act in question, if it turns out it was inspired by "Islam," but not on behalf of anything more specific politically, or if it was anti-American but not exactly pro anything else, how is it not homegrown? Islam, after all, exists in the non-radical sense in the U.S. Why, unless there's some connection to a group/government abroad, do we assume the extremist version of that which exists here is "foreign"?

Miss Self-Important said...

We don't know their motivations; that's precisely the problem. But as we try to piece those motivations together, I think the foreign suspicions arise from the Chechen connection, the parents back in Russia, the older brother going back to Russia, being reported to the FBI by Russia, etc., not just the vague specter of generic "Islam." Sure, in the end, we might discover that this Chechnya business was all just coincidence, or all the older brother's fault, but since they are brothers and seem to have acted together, I don't see why we'd expect the media to draw a sharp citizen/non-citizen distinction between the two, or to say something like, well, the older brother voiced his disgust with America and has all these suspicious links to Chechen terrorists, but the younger brother must be taken as a unique individual in no way implicated in these connections.

If it turns out that the act was inspired by apolitical teenage disaffection and had nothing to do with any ideology, then that will be an exciting new category of terrorist motivation. You're right that there is no clear link b/w actual Chechen terrorists and what these guys did and no one is claiming responsibility, plus Chechens have never targeted the US before and don't clearly stand to gain much by doing so. But until we know there is no connection, I don't see why it's all that weird that the media would fixate on old patterns, like Americans going abroad to receive training from foreign extremists to commit terrorism domestically. The reason we suspect this is that it's happened before, whereas random violence caused by teenage disaffection has not.

Phoebe said...

Teenage disaffection, no. But teenage derangement, yes, that has led to plenty of mass murders. Is the idea that a bomb is inherently political, whereas a gun is not?

Phoebe said...

Here's what we have to ask: Does it set a dangerous precedent to suggest that an American citizen who commits a crime in America, not claimed by any foreign entity, is an enemy combattant? I would say that yes, it certainly does, and I say this not out of any bleeding-heart sympathy for a terrible criminal, but out of fear for what this precarious definition of citizenship - this assumption that a naturalized citizen is still foreign - means for the law-abiding (and yes, non-gruesome crime-committing) majority. What creeps me out here is the readiness of so many to consider someone who arrived here as a young child, who held American citizenship, a foreigner. Of course there are particularities of this case that partly explain that reaction. But the younger brother didn't go abroad, and seemed to be doing just fine in the States. Perhaps his motivation was more akin to that of whichever mass shooters - evil of a specifically 19-year-old (American?) male variety. Maybe he had the chance to blow some stuff (people!) up, and went with it. Creating this narrative in which even the younger brother never really Americanized, despite having appeared to do so, reinforces this notion that Americanization is impossible. Which, in turn, isn't going to help prevent radicalizations, and might well contribute.

Miss Self-Important said...

Perhaps his motivation was more akin to that of whichever mass shooters - evil of a specifically 19-year-old (American?) male variety. Maybe he had the chance to blow some stuff (people!) up, and went with it.
Maybe, and if he'd acted alone, then I think the media would more readily push that angle b/c nothing else about him is so far remarkable. But since he didn't act alone, and his partner was his own brother, and that brother has suspicious foreign connections and seems the more likely driving force behind the attack, we turn the teenager into an appendage of his adult brother. As I said, the close relation of these two guys makes it difficult to draw a clear distinction based simply on their different citizenship statuses and ages of arrival. Family is pretty influential, and I can easily imagine it trumping the forces of assimilation to which this guy was exposed, especially since he seemed to be living in the US w/o his parents and had only this brother.

As for why bombs and political and guns are not, they're not, I'm just following the public presumption based on previous precedents. In principle, the means of violence don't matter as much as the ends, but in the absence of knowledge of ends, we might say that bombs are more closely associated w/ political violence (again, Weathermen, OK City) and guns with isolated evil or deranged people. Also, the targeting of big public events looks political, since isolated mass shooters have typically attacked during mundane moments, like during school, or at the movies, or at restaurants. There is nothing sacred about these distinctions, they're just what people speculate from in low-information contexts. As more info becomes available, previous useless speculation will simply be forgotten.

The only thing that will reinforce a notion that Americanization is impossible would be the discovery that these guys acted directly on behalf of a foreign organization, and that would only become a widespread notion if many such incidents follow this one. Most Americans are otherwise familiar with the idea of the bad apple.

Britta said...

If the younger brother is a US citizen, I don't get on what legal grounds he could be tried as an enemy combatant. It also sets a very disturbing precedent if we decide that certain US citizens aren't really citizens in the same way as others. Unless he had officially denounced his citizenship and pledged allegiance to another country, I don't see how his acting in the name of any issue--whether it's Chechen separatism, radical Islam, or mental illness--allows us to arbitrarily strip him of his citizenship. I would also guess that if an Irish American bombed something and it was later found out he had ties to the IRA, there wouldn't be the same push to strip him of his citizenship.

Phoebe said...


The question remains why a seemingly ordinary (Reihan is right that this guy seems like many kids we went to high school with) 19-year-old pothead became a terrorist co-conspirator. And one likely answer is, he owed his brother a favor. Another: he thought this was a neat opportunity to blow stuff up (thereby confounding the mellow-pothead stereotype). These seem more likely than that under the sway of his brother, he secretly became an Islamic fundamentalist. So even if the older brother had an ideology, that doesn't tell us that the younger one did.

As for "bad apples," the politicians who think this should somehow influence immigration policy may not see it that way.


Agreed. I was going to put something in an earlier comment about how we probably wouldn't try to send a neo-Nazi of German extraction "back" to Germany, so yes, definitely agreed.

Miss Self-Important said...

So is your complaint with the long-term political effects or the sloppy immediate media coverage of an ongoing story?

Because it seems like the latter problem is similar to the UWS nanny-murderer situation - the media is required to keep a constant flow of new info coming during unfolding news scenarios, and they post everything they can find w/o particularly high standards of verification. In the nanny case, you also faulted them for paying insufficient attention to subtle social innuendo, and I'd only repeat that they can hardly be expected to do so under the circumstances. Similarly, conflating the motives and backgrounds of two brothers acting together in the same bombing/crazed manhunt situation while that situation unfolds is to be expected. The only way out of that is to abolish the option of instant (and therefore error-ridden and oversimplified) news, and that's not looking likely. After several days or weeks of investigation, the differences between the brothers will become clearer, but within 24 hrs of the release of their identities by the FBI, that's just not reasonable to expect.

The longer-term political consequences are also difficult to predict from the initial emphases of the reporting of an unfolding event precisely b/c that reporting is so sloppy and subject to rapid change. Politicians always appear in public immediately and talk about how they will prevent such things from ever happening again, but they're often no more informed than we readers of the Boston Globe live update feed, so they say the usual confident nothings: We'll catch 'em, we'll hold someone in the government accountable for letting this happen (the FBI, Homeland Security, etc.), we'll prevent such like from ever doing this again. Recall during the VA Tech shooting aftermath, there was all this hype about the need to identify all the scary-seeming students in advance by reporting anyone who wrote sad or mean things in their course papers. That never panned out. So it's doubtful that wildly-aimed anti-immigration rhetoric of the moment will have any near-future political effect, particularly if it becomes clear that the bombers had no ties to any foreign organization. It happens that immigration reform is on the Congressional schedule right now, but I don't think any of it would have an effect on the situation of these bombers. I'm not sure how you could legally "tighten" immigration in any way that would exclude the Tsarnaevs from getting here - they weren't illegal, and no one seems interested in abolishing the refugee visa program.

The media's initial emphases might continue to swirl in the public conversation though, even if they never change laws. That much was true of the disturbed student trope at VA Tech, or bullying after Columbine. We continued to talk about it and used these incidents as examples. Is that the problem you're hoping to avoid?

As for citizenship and enemy combatants - US citizenship does not necessarily preclude being classed as an enemy combatant. I believe one example was a US citizen captured in Afghanistan fighting against American troops in the early 2000s. If you are captured inside the US though, I'd think there would need to be much more evidence that your crime was carried out on orders from a foreign organization with whom the US is at war. So it didn't seem likely that this case would make the cut. Also, we can send naturalized Germans back to Germany if they committed a crime there and Germany requests their return - that's extradition, nothing revolutionary there. We can't do that if they commit crimes in the US on behalf of American groups or their own personal feelings though, and no one is suggesting that.

Phoebe said...


That's some good pressing-for-clarification, and I'm not being sarcastic! As for what concerns me, it depends, right? In the immediate moment, I'm not concerned with legislation that would promptly deport all Americans here legally but who seem kinda-sorta foreign. The presence of so many who are here entirely illegally suggests mass deportation of legal immigrants isn't imminent. Nor is it entirely clear which class of people is thought "foreign" - am I unnerved on behalf of all Americans of foreign origin? Of non-Christian heritage? So this isn't about me saying that the response to this has been outrageous. It's more subtle than that.

What concerns me for now is that someone who is American and committed a crime in the States, who has certain political views critical of American policies but you know the McVeigh argument so I won't repeat it... that this individual isn't merely evil, but foreign. Yes, the news cycle moves quickly, and yes, we're all guessing at best. But there's been enough nuance almost from the get-go in the narrative to distinguish the older, nutty-and-now-we-know-radical brother from the younger, seemingly-normal, how-could-he-have-done-this one. And no, it isn't obvious that the younger brother shared the much older one's ideology. There are any number of reasons he might have taken part.

What concerns me is the popular readiness to turn this into something about immigration, about foreigners, when it could well have been half that, if at all. And this isn't even just something one gets from the right. There's a very progressive op-ed in the NYT today about how tough it is for immigrant kids, how even those who arrive young can fail much later in life (can't anyone?) and this can be attributed to their having been born abroad.

Miss Self-Important said...

What concerns me is the popular readiness to turn this into something about immigration, about foreigners, when it could well have been half that, if at all.
Ok, I guess, but half seems like a lot to me, especially when the two halves in question are so closely related. I just don't think immigration would loom so large if it had just been the one kid who came at age 8, got naturalized, became a pothead. It's the presumably-in-charge-because-older brother who's responsible for the story turning to questions about foreign connections. If there really was some kind of underlying media or social animus against immigrants, why wouldn't we see the same focus in the VA Tech shootings? Where there really was zero evidence for foreign ties, as in VA Tech, the media ignored the immigration/assimilation angle although the shooter was an immigrant, and one who arrived at the same age as this guy and was never naturalized. I don't recall anything suggesting that he was driven over the edge by failure to assimilate, or that we should consider restricting Korean immigration b/c Koreans are ethnically nuts. Only in light of possible familial ties to foreign entities does the immigration/assimilation talk arise.

Maybe now that the older brother is dead and they have only the younger one to contend with, if he denies radical Islamic ideas himself, the foreign talk will subside, and as he reveals more about why he decided to join in this, people will start speculating about the nefarious social influence of older brothers and the social urgency of protecting young, parent-less children like Junior Bomber from such fates.

But, out of curiosity, what do you make of the issue of so-called homegrown terrorists, some of whom are native-born Americans of totally non-Muslim extraction? Like this dude. Obviously, these people are not foreign in any usual sense of the term, and yet, they make themselves foreign by choice, literally into enemy combatants. Do you think it's objectionable to de-naturalize them this way?

i said...


And then there's been this other aspect of the coverage-broadly-defined, about how the attackers were ungrateful to this country that welcomed them. I mean, if you've lived somewhere since childhood, is this even a matter of gratitude, or gratitude above and beyond what anyone born in the U.S. might feel? Should your debt to America be different from that of someone born here? Should you be on best behavior above and beyond the usual? Put another way: it's evil to commit a crime of this nature no matter what. But is it somehow more evil if you happened to have been born on foreign soil?

Speaking as a landed immigrant in the US, who has been an immigrant in two other countries, naturalized in one of those, I would argue the answer is yes. The place where you came from was shitty, or didn't give you the right kind of opportunities, or unpleasant for whatever reason. You took a slot that other would-be immigrants would have killed for. You know there are other places in the world where you could live, you probably even have family in some of them, and if you have such a problem with the country you're in that you want to kill its people, you should do your best to leave.

I'm not fond of the kinds of easy judgements this event leads to. I also think it's everybody's right to offer constructive criticism of the society where they live. But at a certain point, it becomes too much. I grew up hearing some people complain constantly about the country where we lived, a country that took us in and offered a much better standard of life than we had had.

Re: Greek woman... immigrants are notoriously short-memoried and intolerant of other immigrants, so no surprise there. But they also know the cultural and financial sacrifices & efforts they have made to fit into a certain country, and often have, in a sense, a greater emotional investment in it. They're also intensely aware that every time some immigrant bozo does something awful, it will reflect poorly on them as well.

Phoebe said...


Someone who signs up with a foreign group/army, or a homegrown one aimed at overthrowing the government, is presumably committing treason and it doesn't much matter whether they were naturalized last week or their ancestors came over on the Mayflower.

The complication here is that we're not at war with whatever possibly unto-himself entity this older brother represented.


There's a huge difference between an adult who chose to emigrate, and a child who was brought along for the ride. Who knows if an 8-year-old would have left of his own volition. Who knows if he was old enough to see what was problematic about the old country, or if he even remembers it. (Lots of things a kid that age 'remembers' from early childhood are basically things their parents repeat to them.)

But yes, it can be a bit much when someone who's come to your country - as an immigrant, or even as a tourist - spends the whole time holding forth on how much better it is back home. And indeed, depending where someone comes from, it might be absolutely fine back home. But it's like, you came here for some reason, right? I get it, I do. But as you say, this can be dangerous to take to any kind of logical conclusion. People move around for all kinds of reasons, reasons that tend to fall short of the would-die-in-the-gutter-or-be-murdered-by-guerillas-if-stayed-put ideal.

But more to the point, what bothers me re: "gratitude" is how it can be manipulated. I think about my own research - (native-born) French Jews feeling like they had to express gratitude for not being horribly oppressed. And in that case, it's like, no, sorry, one should be allowed to feel entitled to not being horribly oppressed.

i said...


There is a difference between the adult who emigrates and the child, but not necessarily as huge. Even child immigrants often have (family, language, friend) ties to some former land -- it certainly seems to have been the case here -- and can at least more easily conceptualize the idea of an alternative home. Actually, from my experience it can be easier for them to go "back", precisely because the homeland is a vague memory. Adult immigrants tend to be a little more trapped in the details of the life they led in the old country, and less willing to face its loss. Again, these are observations from my particular experience. I emigrated at 5, 7, and 29, and I grew up surrounded by immigrant families, both from my own culture and from other cultures. I wouldn't claim these are true for everybody, but I also don't think it's as simple as you portray it.

Moreover, while a child can't be expected to know what was problematic about the old country, an adult can. The older brother at least seems to have been interested in researching his family's homeland, clearly was not uncomfortable with travel outside the US, and both were of adult age. I don't want to erase the complications of what was probably quite a convoluted family relationship (the mother sounds like a real winner too), but they made a grown-up choice to stay in the US, and a choice to kill a bunch of random civilians.

Re: gratitude. If the country you were born in wants you to feel grateful for not treating you like crap, I agree, that's ridiculous. If the country you were born in treats you like crap, and another country that owes you absolutely nothing takes you in and offers you the same opportunities it offers its native born sons and daughters, I think gratitude is an appropriate feeling. It doesn't have to be uncritical, but it is a reasonable reaction. I'm grateful to each of the countries that allowed me to emigrate to them, and at the same time I could come up with a list of things wrong with each. That said, if I were to kill a bunch of people in one of them because I had a "problem" with it, I do think that would make me a bit more of an asshole than your average homegrown murderer.

Miss Self-Important said...

I also second i's points about gratitude. Children don't have a choice about immigrating, but assuming their parents are not doing it on a lark when things are going wonderfully at home, it's usually a boon to the kids too - to escape poverty, discrimination, danger abroad, or even just to have better opportunities here. It's possible that I would've thrived in the anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, and poverty of Russia, but I believe I'm probably better off here than there. So even though immigration wasn't my personal choice, I affirm my parents' choice.

Phoebe said...

Not to get massively sidetracked, but the things-were-much-worse-back-home narrative is just one type of immigration. Of course there's always some advantage to the new place, but people a) come over for a particular job or type of schooling and stay put, leaving perfectly "first-world" home countries, and b) leave a terrible situation in one place and find a terrible situation within the ostensibly superior new country. To return to the case in question, one notable thing about this "immigration" is that the parents moved back.

Britta said...

Yeah, a lot of immigrants give up a relatively high status in their old country for a permanent lower status in the new country. I know someone who was a nuclear physicist in Russia who became a janitor in the US. Also, a lot of Korean grocers have medical degrees. I imagine life is not better for these people, but rather, it's the hope that their children's lives will be better than if they had stayed put.

Aside from material conditions though, there's a psychological cost to leaving your family and friends and moving somewhere with an unfamiliar language and culture. Unless the disparity is great, immigration is probably a net wash on happiness.