Boston, Bombs, Guns, Chechens, And The Neverending Rush To Judgment

“Breaking news out of Boston! Yes, the bombing suspect has been captured. No, wait, he hasn’t. No, wait, they’re questioning someone, but—wait, no, now it’s two people, and one of them is a missing student from Br—oh, no, wait, it’s one person and it’s definitely a dark-skinned male. Two dark-skinned males. One white male. Wait, no, color is a spectrum that defies easy categorization. But reliable sources assure us they’ve been caught. One of them has been caught. Nobody is in custody. It’s over! It’s not over. It’s over! And the suspect is dead. The suspect is alive. He is both dead and alive. Professor Schrodinger will open the box, after this.”

So went the media coverage all week long, and now, my lands, Americans are just appalled. Look at the thoughtlessness! Gaze at the rush to judgment! Marvel at the sheer gall of these awful, irresponsible reporters as they make bold statement after bold statement without a shred of hard evidence, contradict themselves at the drop of a hat, and change their stories willy-nilly without so much as a by-your-leave!

These journalists today, am I right? Mercy, it’s enough to make you sick.

Good thing we’re nothing like that, huh?

Yeah, right. Petr Gandalovic knows better. He’s the ambassador to the U.S. from the Czech Republic. On Friday he released a statement that started by denouncing the violence in Boston and ended by (I wish I were making this up) reminding Americans that the Czech Republic and Chechnya are two separate entities. True story. Seems as soon as we learned the bombers’ identities, countless Americans hit Twitter to blast Chechnya—because obviously, if two Chechens set off a bomb, the whole country must be some kind of anti-American Islamo-terrorist hotbox—but then they got confused and ended up ripping on the Czech Republic instead.

You heard right: Americans rushed to judgment on an entire nation so quickly that they got the nation wrong. (Good thing we don’t assume all Americans are alike—otherwise between Newtown and the Houston stabbing incident and everything else we do to each other on a daily basis, those poor folks at the Armenian embassy would just be swamped.)

Of course, Gandalovic got off easy—he only had to deal with a few twits on Twitter. (Including one guy who’s still defending himself: “Lots of misinformed people on here saying Czechs are peaceful. Does the name ‘Slobodan Milosevic’ mean nothing to them?”) Abdulrahman Ali Alharbi had it much worse. You remember him: he’s the “Saudi Marathon Man” who became the first Prime Suspect on Monday, immediately after the bombings, when a would-be Good Samaritan saw the crowd of injured people fleeing the scene, singled out the brown guy, and tackled him to the ground. Police questioned him for hours, investigators searched his apartment, reporters harassed his roommate, and right-wing blogs lit up for days about his “Islamist” connections, even after he’d long been ruled out as a suspect.

Nor was Alharbi alone. Thousands of would-be Internet sleuths spent the week scanning photos of the scene and wildly speculating about who did and didn’t look suspicious—including one high-school track star who’d apparently made the mistake of being Moroccan—and meanwhile across the country there was a spike in reports of anti-Arab violence. No Arabs were actually involved in the Boston bombing, of course, but that didn’t stop people from a) assuming they were, b) assuming all Arabs were complicit, and in a few cases c) concluding that the only proper course of action was to retaliate. Fortunately most people didn’t get as far as c), but millions took a) and b) for granted. Some right-wingers spent the entire week accusing Barack Obama of covering up the “Saudi connection” for political reasons; when the Tsarnaevs were caught, they conveniently forgot they’d been crying conspiracy for the last four days—and quietly moved on to other conspiracies.

Of course this is appearing on a progressive website in Chapel Hill—so if you’re reading this, you probably didn’t assume Boston was a Saudi/Islamist job. Oh, no. You spent the entire week convincing yourself it was going to be some Alex Jones-listening, Fox News-watching, hate-spewing white male Tea Party dittohead. And we’ll say no more about that.

Nope, the Tsarnaevs insisted on defying everybody’s expectations by being Eastern European, of all things. Terrorists of Eastern European descent are new, at least to us—so now I guess we’ll have to add that to the list of Ethnic Groups To Watch Out For, alongside Middle EasternEast AsianBlackBlack,WhiteWhiteWhiteWhite, and ‘Mixed.’ If racial profiling wasn’t a stupid idea before, it certainly is now—not that that’s going to stop us, of course. (Nothing stops us. We don’t know a thing about Chechnya–and the Tsarnaevs never even lived there!–but we’re still judging the Chechens nonetheless.)

Meanwhile, guns! We are still, still waiting for definitive evidence that enacting new firearm regulations (or relaxing the old ones) will have any effect at all on the growing epidemic of gun violence. Actually, let me restate that: it’s true there’s no definitive evidence, but naturally everybody’s already made up their minds, so we’re plowing forward with a big ol’ loud debate anyway. (“Waiting” is so last century.) The pro-gun side had a good week last week—which is great, if you believe them when they tell you that a ban on guns is only the first step to something more sinister. (Of course nobody’s actually attempting to ban guns, but the judgment’s already been rushed to.)

That’s what it’s about, ya see: NRA supporters say they need their guns to keep tyranny at bay. Well, good. Of course most of them also support increased military spending, thus enabling Uncle Sam to buy even more of the high-tech bombs and other devices he’d use for tyranny if it should ever come to that. Thanks to all that firepower, your guns won’t be worth squat if the government ever starts kicking down your door. (Incendiary devices like the ones used in Boston would actually be more useful against a tyrant, butthose are generally illegal. But nobody from the NRA griped about that all week, so apparently the Second Amendment does have limits after all—and apparently it’s not really about fighting off tyranny either. Which I suppose is just as well, because many of those would-be revolutionaries are also the same people who cried treason last decade whenever anyone spoke the slightest ill word about George W. Bush.)

Man, there’s so much contradictory rhetoric on the gun-rights side, it’s hard to keep track of it all. It’s almost enough to make you forget the gun-control side tut-tuts the prevalence of firearms every time there’s a gun-related incident—but uttered not a word this week about how easy it is to purchase bomb-making materials or find bomb-making instructions online.

Seems it is people who kill people after all.

And in that vein I guess none of this is too surprising. We all like to think ourselves superior, but at the end of the day we’re the same rabble who believed that Richard Jewell was guilty, that Piltdown Man was real, that New Kids On The Block music would stand the test of time; we’re the same people who were certain that Saddam caused 9/11, or Lance Armstrong was a hero, or John Edwards was the next FDR. Sixteen percent of us believe that merely praying to Allah constitutes an act of terrorism. We lump people into groups and make judgments about the lot; we care more about other human beings if they happen to be Americans; we hold deeply emotional opinions on issues we don’t know the slightest thing about; and every so often we carry all that smelly baggage into voting booths.

These people today, am I right? Mercy, it’s enough to make you sick.

Personally, I blame the media.