"Why Did They Do It?" Muslims, Terrorism and the Boston Marathon Bombings

Tuesday, 12 July 2016
Location: Hörsaal 31 (Main Building)
Distributed Paper
Nazli KIBRIA, Boston University, USA
Saher SELOD, Simmons College, USA
Tobias Henry WATSON, Boston University, USA
On April 15th 2013, at the annual Boston Marathon in Boston, USA, two bombs exploded, resulting in what has been widely described as one of the most significant acts of terrorism  on US soil since 9-11.  On April 18th, when photographs of the suspected perpetrators were released, there was intense public speculation about their racial and religious identities. Later on that day, the suspects were identified as two brothers, residents of the USA who were Muslim and  of Chechnyan origin. We explore media narratives and commentary on the April 15 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, with the goal of better understanding the social construction of the suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers, as “Muslim terrorists.” In this  paper we focus on a 5 day period following the attacks, beginning with April 18th when the suspects were identified and caught. This was a period of intense public reflection and debate on explanation – the question of why did they do it. We conduct a framing analysis of explanations, drawing on materials from The Boston Globe, The New York Times and the online news section of CBS.com. We look at a range of coverage and commentary, including reports, essays, commentary, op-eds as well as readers’ comments on these sites. Our findings suggest a range of competing explanations operating, including a “school shootings” narrative that turned to explanations of mental illness, family dysfunction, alienation from peers and exposure to a violent youth masculine culture. The “school shootings” narrative competed with one of the “Muslim terrorist” that explained the acts of violence as expressions of the religious identity and background of the suspects. Our analysis highlights the fluid, contested and ongoing character of Muslim racialization as well as the mediating role played by local and national histories in shaping these processes.