Possibly foreign

As you’ve no doubt heard from countless media sources, two devices exploded yesterday at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing two and wounding dozens. No group or individual has claimed responsibility for what appears to be an attack. I am trying to cage my language as much as possible here, for reasons I will make obvious over the course of this post.

Boston is my favourite city in the United States. It is also home to my closest friend, who was thankfully nowhere near the site when the explosions happened (although he had biked the route earlier in the day). Obviously there are no words sufficient to the task of expressing the shock and grief that Bostonians and Americans are feeling today, so I won’t waste much time in trying.

I did get a bit of a taste of it yesterday though, when I wasn’t sure if my friend was okay – standing at a marathon finish line sounds like something he’d be into, and when he didn’t answer his phone a part of my brain decided, despite having zero evidence, that he had been killed. The next half hour was black hell for me, as the thought refused to be shouted down by the voices of reason detailing the 90,000 other places he was more likely to be than at the epicentre of a bomb blast. He was fine. Working in his lab (a logical place for him to be on a Monday), with no phone reception.

That fear, that grief, that terror that was rampaging through my brain and playing fun percussive tricks with my autonomic nervous system, is not something I would wish on anyone – not even whoever is responsible for engendering it in me.

It is in that emotional turmoil that the true success of terrorism (if that is indeed what it is) lies: human beings rush to discard reason in circumstances like that. We lose our illusion of safety, our view of a fundamentally fair and just world (particularly in a place like the USA) is instantly shattered, and the axiomatic, reflexive habits that create civil society are temporarily suspended as we rush headlong into the terror from which these kinds of acts get their name.

And while this fear is natural, it also makes us very, very dangerous:

[Update, 8:36 p.m. ET] Investigators have warned law enforcement officers to be on the lookout for a “darker-skinned or black male” with a possible foreign accent in connection with Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, according to a law enforcement advisory obtained by CNN.

The man was seen with a black backpack and sweatshirt and was trying to get into a restricted area about five minutes before the first explosion, the lookout notice states.

I am planning a trip to Boston next month. I am a darker-skinned or black male, and someone might take my accent for foreign (which it undoubtedly is). At the same time, I sincerely doubt that this description, although it matches me perfectly, is intended to describe me. It’s meant to describe people who are foreign foreign. You know, those guys. The guys who bomb people (please disregard the fact that the last handful of acts of mass murder have been committed by white American-born men).

I can’t imagine a less useful descriptor, or one that could be more perfectly suited to random acts of racial profiling against any brown-skinned man who has the misfortune of being caught after hours on the streets of Boston – a city that is more than 40% black or Latin@. A city that, I don’t know if you heard, hosts a marathon that brings runners from all over the world. Male runners. With dark skin. And foreign-sounding accents.

I hope they had the good sense to stay indoors last night.

The New York Post, a rank tabloid with a respectable-sounding name and a long history of race-baiting and factual inaccuracy, began running a story about a “Saudi National” who was a suspect in the bombing being monitored by police in a nearby hospital. Of course, because it’s the New York Post, it was wrong and specifically denied by police. But it doesn’t matter – the target audience of the New York Post is not people who care about things like factual accuracy or corroboration. The target audience of the New York Post is the people who would be forming the drunken street vigilantes that roam the streets of South Boston looking for the unnamed “possibly foreign” person to administer the same kind of justice that Emmett Till found in 1955.

This is the target audience of the New York Post.

The New York Post is speaking directly to the part of our brain that is so offended by these kinds of bombings – the part of us that takes over when the fear and grief kick in and vacate our rational faculties. The part of us that looks for some kind of justification, regardless of facts. The part that swims with rage and seeks someone, someone possibly foreign, to punish for their pain. And in a country that has barely begun to grapple with its own history of racial othering, the spectre of the lynch mob is never too far below the surface.

The last time I was in Boston I visited the grave of Crispus Atticus – a black freeman and one of the first people (possibly the first) to die in the American Revolutionary war. Since literally the moment of its birth, people of all colours have bled for America. And yet, when America bleeds, it is the people of colour who are the suspects; who must justify their right to live in a country that has never regarded them as equals.

Far be it from me to suggest that law enforcement was wrong about the description of the suspect – if that person is indeed a suspect or just a “person of interest”. Only time will tell what colour of person was responsible for what happened, or what their motivations were. But until we have facts, as hard as it is, we cannot give in to those parts of our fear-throttled mind that, in moments of sober clarity and reflection, we would likely describe as being “possibly foreign”.

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UPDATE: I am unforgivably remiss in not mentioning that the overwhelming response from Bostonians has been to offer up their homes to people left stranded, to react with compassion and all of the things that we wish people would like to associate with humankind. There were reports of marathoners crossing the finish line and then immediately going to donate blood. The Red Cross tweeted that their shelves were fully stocked within 3 hours of the incident. The outpouring of sympathy and aid was instantaneous. There is abundant triumph of human spirit to be found within the shadows of this tragedy. I deeply regret not putting this into the body of the piece.

UPDATE 2: The Saudi National from the New York Post’s story is considered witness, not a suspect. Fox News still went after his roommate.


  1. CaitieCat says

    I can’t help but think of Jean Charles de Menezes, the young Brazilian man, innocent of any crime or even imputation of criminality, killed by police shortly after the July 7 bombings in London basically for being a foreign-looking man with a backpack using public transit.

    We, as atheists, I hope, will take a more sensible, reasoned approach (pace Sam Harris), and allow actual data and evidence to be gathered before making up our minds. As Bruce Schneier has pointed out many times, the false-positive rate for racial profiling is ridiculous under the best assumptions – profiling makes us LESS SAFE.

  2. mythbri says

    It’s okay, Crom, because that first guy in the ThinkProgress link you posted isn’t Islamophobic. He was just giving rational criticism of Islam. And since it’s Islam, it’s not racist.



    On a more serious note, I’m happy that your friend is okay.

  3. flex says

    Not to distract from your post, but this sentence struck a chord in me,

    We lose our illusion of safety, our view of a fundamentally fair and just world (particularly in a place like the USA) is instantly shattered,….

    There is a sequence in the book, The Maltese Falcon, which describes the reactions of a person who had this happen to them. It’s all in dialogue and about a man Spade was hired to find many years before the events in the book, so I can understand why it’s not in any of the movies. But it’s at the core of the themes that Hammett writes about, and the passage alone make The Maltese Falcon worth the read.

  4. says

    We, as atheists, I hope, will take a more sensible, reasoned approach

    I have seen little evidence to support your optimism about the inherent reasonableness of the atheist community.

  5. jamessweet says

    It’s especially frustrating since, with what little we know, I’m thinking the smart money right now is on domestic terrorism. Not that racial profiling would be okay in any circumstance… but I’m even more disgusted than I would normally be by the people blaming this on Muslims, when the timing sorta hints at a domestic agenda.

  6. says

    I’m thinking the smart money right now is on domestic terrorism

    I wouldn’t put any money anywhere right now, to be honest. I just saw a thing saying that the ‘bombs’ were made with pressure cookers and ball bearings. We have literally no idea who or why. The statistics say that it’s more likely domestic terrorism (simply because more terrorist attacks are domestic than foreign), but that doesn’t tell us anything about this particular event.

  7. freemage says

    I’d really like to see someone in the higher echelons of government call out the Post publicly for their bullshit this time, and make it clear that their fear-mongering actually makes it easier for the actual culprits to hide in the chaos produced.

  8. CaitieCat says

    I have seen little evidence to support your optimism about the inherent reasonableness of the atheist community.

    Point taken. I can still hope, though. Call it an act of faith.

  9. says

    Great article, Crom. Boston is my favorite US city, too. My sister was blocks away, and my niece was supposed to be there as well that day. Both of them would be likely to go hang out at the finish line. Luckily, my niece stayed home and my sister was back at work. I feel a pang of guilt every time I think that, knowing other families never got that relief.

    I’m slated to return home to New England in two months. It’ll be a sad homecoming, as I know some elements of Boston will inevitably over react to this, and the city won’t be the same for years. I hope I’m wrong.

  10. left0ver1under says

    Crommunist (#6)

    I wouldn’t put any money anywhere right now, to be honest.

    No kidding. ETA were initially blamed for the Madrid bombing, Richard Jewell was blamed for the Atlanta park bombing, various suspects and groups were blamed for the Baltimore beltway shootings, among others. And some nutbags have tried to blame the victims of bombings, tried to claim they did it to themselves (e.g. anti-abortionists and the bombings of abortion clinics).

    The statistics say that it’s more likely domestic terrorism (simply because more terrorist attacks are domestic than foreign), but that doesn’t tell us anything about this particular event.

    Exactly. It could easily be a car-driving nut who doesn’t want cities blocking off roads for running races (there have been anti-car racing protests in Vancouver, Melbourne and elsewhere but they were peaceful) or some amateur wannabe-bomber just seeing if he could do it, building one “for fun”. Anything is possible.

  11. jesse says

    Speaking as a native of the Boston area…

    I was just glad the bomb hadn’t gone off an hour earlier and about a mile (that’s about 1.6 kilometers to you “foreign” Canadians 🙂 ) down the road. Fenway Park is near the route, and the exits face Yawkey way and when the crowds get out there’s a huge crush of people milling around. As you walk from there along Brookline Ave you run into the Marathon spectators. So for a while there’s some serious chaos goin’ on as people go from the game to the Marathon.

    The early reports are misleading at best, a lot of the time. I can remember another famous little incident (in Boston): the Charles Stuart case. Stuart killed his wife and said a black man did it. Well, the cops decided to round up every young dark-skinned kid in Dorchester. I hope this doesn’t play the same way.

    And you’re going to Boston and thinknig about sounding foreign? 🙂 Lord knows I would think you’d have a hell of a time understanding us New Englanders. (Just remember: if someone asks if you want an orange tonic it’s a drink WITHOUT gin and “whaling on it” does not mean we still hunt cetaceans).

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