As Always, Wild, Unsubstantiated Media Speculation About Muslims Follows Bombing

History repeats itself.


It is difficult to cover a story when you are looking for a particular outcome. This was underscored by the New York Post when on Monday, less than 90 minutes after the Boston Marathon Bombing, they reported that the police had a suspect - the fifth and sixth words used in their article described him as “Saudi Arabian.” The suspect, they said, was 20 years old and had “suffered severe burns.” The Post cited unnamed “law enforcement sources.” 

A named law enforcement source - Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis - responded to the Post-derived rumor at a press conference some four hours after the paper’s initial report, stating “I want to stress one thing: there is no suspect at Bringham and Women’s hospital.” 

“History repeats itself,” the famed lawyer Clarence Darrow once said. “That’s one of the things wrong with history.” 

Today, even the wildest conspiracy theorists offer only variations on the idea that the tried and executed perpetrator Timothy McVeigh had some kind of help - maybe from the US government - in blowing up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Yet, this would have been the last thing you would have predicted from watching the news in the days after the explosion eighteen years ago this month. 

In the direct aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing, wild media speculation that Middle Eastern terrorists were to blame eclipsed the possibility of other scenarios involving domestic terrorists. Experts on Middle Eastern terrorism were trotted out on most news broadcasts almost immediately after the attack. Comparisons were drawn to the 1993 World Trade Center explosion. The New York Post’s opening paragraph of its story quoted Israeli terrorism experts saying the explosion “mimicked three recent attacks on targets abroad.” In the first sentence of its report, The Wall Street Journal referred to the event as a “Beirut-style car bombing.”

CNN went as far as to identify four innocent Arab Americans in connection with the attack - something then-executive vice president of the network, Ed Turner, saw nothing wrong with. Broadcasting the names of the suspects, he contended, was “part of the story.” 

A June, 1995 American Journalism Review assessment of the media’s handling of the Oklahoma City Bombing notes that the result of what would prove to be the profoundly incorrect assumptions of the press was backlash against the American Muslim community. in the days following the attack, there were dozens of reports of harassment towards Americans of Middle Eastern descent. Arab American shopkeepers in Brooklyn were subject to death threats; A sack of cans was thrown at a Muslim day care teacher and her students by a man who shouted, “Here’s a bomb for you lady”;  Mosques nationwide had their windows broken. 

It is American post traumatic stress disorder to criticize and politicize in the wake of senseless violence. On Twitter, documentarian Michael Moore noted without additional comment that April 15th was both Tax Day and Patriots Day. This led to an attack by conservative pundit SE Cupp who lashed out, “Dude, just say it, why tip toe around your speculative implication?” On both sides of the aisle, any and all comments which could be interpreted as “speculative implications” regarding what might be the bombers political affiliation if he were revealed to be an American were met with knee-jerk reactions like Cupp’s. 

We need someone - anyone - to blame. And out of all the ugly possibilities, the most attractive is that the person(s) responsible for our national pain is an outsider. Mine is a generation raised in a post-9/11 world, and we heard George W. Bush loud and clear when he cautioned us that “they hate us for our freedom.” That notion is perhaps an easier pill to swallow than the idea that this country that we love could have produced an individual who would seek to do us harm. Outsiders hate us because they do not understand our values, but a domestic terrorist does understand them - and they vehemently reject at least some part of them. That is a reality that begs us, as a society, to reflect. Something which does not come as naturally as rallying around the flag. 

It is possible that The New York Post’s for-now-unproven claims of “12 dead” and a “Saudi Arabian suspect” could turn out to be true, but unconfirmed information stated matter-of-factly is not reporting, it is speculating. And speculating it what leads to mistakes like identifying four Arab Americans in connection to an attack that they had no part of. Unfortunately for us, The New York Post repeated their own history and did what came naturally rather than what would have benefited the country. 

Olivia Nuzzi is a freelance writer who has also particpated in speechwriting and media relations.

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