The news has no regard for ratings. No matter how grand, shocking or strange life may be, the rhythm of events is staccato and stochastic. Breakthroughs are walled in by unanswered questions. Watersheds are dammed by a lack of developments. Frustration mounts and attention dwindles. It doesn’t take a Daniel Boorstin to appreciate the corrupting pressure during the news cycle to say anything to enliven dead air.
So among other eruptions, the Boston Marathon bombers have set off a riotous debate about terrorism, Islam and ethnicity. Much of it took place before they were even identified. Early commentary on the Left discussed what might happen if the bombers turned out to be Muslim foreigners. Take David Sirota, who hoped the attacker was a “white American,” lest the identification of a Muslim ignite racist violence in an America driven by the demiurge of “white privilege”. When the Tsarnaevs emerged as radicalized Chechen-Americans, Peter Beinart chided those on the Right who were enjoying schadenfreude: “… the Tsarnaevs hail from the Caucasus, and are therefore, literally, ‘Caucasian.’ You can’t get whiter than that.”
These writers categorically mistake what it means to be an American. The trouble with history is it rarely turns on a dime. Its progress is alluvial — so gradual as to be imperceptible until well after the fact. People will disagree for some time about whether we have become “post-racial,” but while racism will always mar our society, we have long abandoned race and ethnicity as markers of American identity. It is crucial to keep this in mind when analyzing terrorism and American responses to it. It is also the key to understanding United States foreign policy in relation to the Middle East — especially our “special relationship” to Israel.
The United States is a creed-based nation. Unlike European and most other countries, we don’t self-identify via ethnic nationalism — as a race. There are obvious demographic reasons for this, but fundamentally we derive from a settler society which enshrined its core principles — “liberty, individualism, egalitarianism, populism, and laissez faire” capitalism, according to the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset — in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. We ascertain American identity by fealty to and representation of these American values. As Americans we view ourselves as an embodiment of liberal democracy. We are not a country, like France or Germany, that coalesced around a historical people and later developed a governing framework.
In contrast, the tragedy of post-colonial struggle has been its relentless resort to illiberal ideology — national socialisms, Marxism-Leninism, millenarian religion. This and military asymmetry have established among liberators in the developing world a tactical reliance on terrorism, steadily increasing in frequency and lethality since the Second World War. While insipid romanticism about “freedom fighters” always recurs, this sort of revolutionary activity is poisoned in American public opinion because it is indelibly associated with anti-Americanism, illiberalism and the theatrical murder of civilians. Victims are selected in ways that precisely outrage American sensibility — via innocent or unchangeable characteristics or the free expression and voluntary associations that undergird our society. The slain are Americans, Westerners, Jews, worshipers, women, children, commuters, cartoonists, Wall Street workers and marathon runners.
Fascism was extirpated in the Second World War. Marxism-Leninism molders. By far the dominant political movement today that insults and abhors liberal democracy is radical political Islam. There is no chance that Americans will support any cause taken up by Muslim radicals or their allies, no matter how just it may seem or be. In the eyes of Americans, terrorism — especially in the service of Islamist goals — is self-“othering”.
If you think the Tsarnaevs are being filtered through the lens of race, consider recent similar examples. In 2010, activists launched a sea raid on the Israeli blockade of Gaza which became known as the “Freedom Flotilla”. It was organized by the Free Gaza Movement, which is an unsavory political alliance featuring a violent Islamist element, the Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation. Free Gaza is also an outgrowth of the International Solidarity Movement. The ISM are radicals whose key tactic has been to suborn young Westerners to travel to the occupied territories to maim or kill themselves so their sacrifices will stain Israel’s image.
The group has had two key successes involving Americans. In 2003, ISM activist Rachel Corrie was killed by an IDF bulldozer. About a year later, Brian Avery, a young American whose father was a 30-year Navy veteran, was shot in the face by an IDF patrol. His nose was blown out and his lower jaw was split in two. Corrie and Avery were unmistakably “white Americans”, but these tragedies garnered much greater notice and sympathy abroad. Most Americans instinctively will favor a foreigner who appears to comport with American values over a US citizen who seems to ally with an enemy. Americans view Israel, a liberal democracy, favorably. They saw Corrie and Avery as auxiliaries of Palestinian terror who had abdicated their American identity.
So too with Furkan Dogan, the Turkish-American teenager shot by the IDF during its siege of the Mavi Marmara, the IHH vessel that joined the “Freedom Flotilla”. In response Andrew Sullivan gasped, “They Killed a US Citizen”. Glenn Greenwald was apoplectic. To him, the U.S. Government refusing even to pretend to care that Israel killed one of its citizens was the most glaring example yet of a bias engineered by sinister elites. Sullivan and Greenwald hoped to use race to mobilize American public opinion against Israel. The rest of the country barely noticed. How “American” did Dogan, who joined an Islamist rabble seeking to violently confront the IDF and run a blockade on behalf of Hamas, seem to Americans?
From the Grand Mufti’s flirtation with Hitler, to the PLO’s embrace of Marxist-Leninism, to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas — Palestinians, since early in their struggle, have assumed a series of identities in relief to America. The PLO internationalized terrorism in the 70s and by the 80s were responsible for training over 40 different groups, including the Red Army Fraktion. In Ma’alot in 1974, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine adumbrated the 2004 slaughter by Chechen terrorists of children in Beslan. Suicide zealots lit up Passover celebrants during the Second Intifada. To us, the Palestinians are history’s Pantone color book of illiberalism.
Much less important to explaining the enduring American affinity for Israel is the Israel Lobby. Our posture toward the Middle East is a forceful expression of idealism in foreign policy. It is no accident that the leading misinterpreters of the US-Israel alliance — Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer — are doctrinaire political realists.
American identity is defined and measured by ideas and ideals. The gauge of whether or not you’re perceived as American is not biological. It’s how compatible you appear to be with American values. Anyone of any race or ethnicity can be an American in this sense, but not every creed. The Tsarnaevs register as alien because they’re jihadist maniacs, not because of their religion or skin tone.
Pro-Palestinian activists and Israelophobes who try to incite patriotic Americans against Israel also miss this. They’ll never succeed in what is, not for nothing, the right-wing enterprise of kindling American tribalism against Israel and Jews. There are many reasons for this. The long, baleful history of Palestinian terrorism is foremost among them.