Despite the tragedy that was the Boston Marathon bombing – which thus far has yielded three dead, over one hundred and ten wounded, and almost no solid leads as to the culprit or culprits, dozens of people have taken an early opportunity to disrespectfully politicize the event. For example, Alex Jones, conspiracy theorist extraordinaire, announced shortly after the bombing that the event was a “false flag” government conspiracy designed to get the Transportation Security Administration into sporting events.
However, some of these attempts to politicize were simply insulting. Take, for example, David Sirota and his Tuesday article on Salon.com titled “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.”
Sirota’s basic argument depends on the idea that white/male privilege in America is so pervasive that the government’s legal responses to acts of terror are almost always biased. He tries to make his case by comparing terror attacks to mass shootings.
This has been most obvious in the context of recent mass shootings. In those awful episodes, a religious or ethnic minority group lacking such privilege would likely be collectively slandered and/or targeted with surveillance or profiling (or worse) if some of its individuals comprised most of the mass shooters. However, white male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated/targeted for those shootings — even though most come at the hands of white dudes.
Likewise, in the context of terrorist attacks, such privilege means white non-Islamic terrorists are typically portrayed not as representative of whole groups or ideologies, but as “lone wolf” threats to be dealt with as isolated law enforcement matters. Meanwhile, non-white or developing-world terrorism suspects are often reflexively portrayed as representative of larger conspiracies, ideologies and religions that must be dealt with as systemic threats — the kind potentially requiring everything from law enforcement action to military operations to civil liberties legislation to foreign policy shifts.
He argues that, if the bomber or bombers turn out to be Muslim in origin, conservatives in government will use the incident to fan the flames of the war on Islamic terror and further promote American Islamophobia, thus risking major impacts on American domestic and foreign policy. In contrast, if it’s a white right-wing extremist, conservatives in government will push it aside as an isolated incident and it won’t have any major bearing on federal policy.
Therefore, he hopes that the bomber is a white guy.
In a follow-up piece written on Wednesday, he defended his position further.
…The reason to hope that the bomber is a white American is because in a country where white privilege and double standards so obviously affect our national security reactions, that outcome will better guarantee that the reaction to Boston is a bit more measured.
Sirota’s argument is filled with more than a few holes. For instance, he almost solely attributes non-Islamic domestic terrorism from the past few years to right-wing extremists. He does this in part by citing Daryl Johnson, the former Homeland Security analyst responsible for writing the now-infamous DHS report on “Right Wing Extremism.” In the article Sirota cites, Johnson recites a list of terror events he claims prove his initial report was correct in its intent. However, the majority of the evidence Johnson refers to consists of either uncited statistics or events committed by actors who have been argued to be left-leaning politically rather than right-leaning. Holocast Muesum shooter James Von Brunn, and Joe Stack, the man who crashed a plane into a Texas IRS building, are two examples.
However, the thrust of the argument – white/male privilege – is what really created an uproar. White privilege has been in the news quite a bit lately, and has received a fair bit of criticism as a result. While some people have reported that the privilege argument means that whites or males are inherently sexist/racist, that is a mischaracterization of the theory. The technical definition is that because whites/males have had dominant roles in Western society, they tend to benefit from certain social and political arrangements in ways that minorities or women do not.
This is how privilege frames Sirota’s argument: whites avoid being stereotyped in the same way that minorities do because they have had a dominant place in society. As Sirota is quoted above saying, he is concerned that conservatives will lift up the Boston Marathon bombing as an example of general Islamic violence should it actually prove to have been perpetrated by Muslim extremists. Sirota is afraid that such stereotyping would result in conservatives running roughshod over civil liberties, promoting Islamophobia and racism, and generally doing horrible things with major policy issues. If it’s a white right-winger, those same conservatives will downplay the incident as “isolated” out of their privilege, and downplay the incident to avoid the aforementioned horrible consequences.
It’s amusing (read: troubling) how Sirota also seems to be stereotyping all conservatives as white. But what’s more astounding – and at the core of his article’s problems – is his historical revisionism. I don’t exactly know what world Sirota has been living in for the past few years, but last time I checked the conservative movement in Washington doesn’t have the power to single-handedly run roughshod over civil liberties or other policies. They haven’t had that power since, I don’t know, when they last held the majority in 2004.
Actually, as Sirota himself partially concedes by citing Rand Paul’s push back against domestic drone use, conservatives and libertarians have been taking a leading role in defending civil liberties in recent years. The Obama administration, by contrast, has some serious explaining to do. And that’s the problem: the privilege argument (which I will document further in a future article) is also, to a considerable extent, a political one as it is usually tied up with political concepts. Liberals are generally the ones more sensitive to “privilege,” and thus attach that “enlightened awareness” to their own understanding of their policies. However, it has been Obama’s team who has been harming civil liberties most aggressively as of late, not conservatives. What’s more, despite the fact that Sirota claims white conservatives largely escape scrutiny, the Obama administration has certainly been putting in the time and work to change that.
All David Sirota has done with his argument is needlessly condemn whites and conservatives for hypothetical future racism – which itself is contingent on a single potential outcome for the culprit of the Boston bombing.
Hope all you want that it’s a white guy, Mr. Sirota. It doesn’t matter which party is in power or what group is responsible for an atrocity – if someone in a position of authority wants to exploit an incident to their advantage, then they will do it. Period.