In the past few weeks, we have been inundated with information about the Boston bombers’ lives.
More recently, the politics of burial has emerged as the most pressing issue for media consumption. From National Public Radio, we learned that “cremation is not an option for Tsarnaev’s Muslim family.” Fox News detailed all the states refusing to bury the corpse, and speculated that Tsarnaev’s body might be sent back to Russia. Indicating how out of control the burial story had spun, the Colorado Muslim Society of Denver felt compelled to deny rumors its community would provide burial options for Tamerlan’s internment.
On Thursday, May 9, the Worcester police announced that “a courageous and compassionate individual came forward to provide the assistance needed to properly bury the deceased. His body is no longer in the City of Worcester and is now entombed… There is no further information at this time.”
On Friday, May 10, media outlets scrambled to break the news that the burial site, located in central Virginia, was no longer a secret. The Boston Globe announced that Virginia officials were surprised by news that the burial was taking place in their state and were “trying to determine” whether or not any laws has been broken in the process, in the hopes, it would seem, of undoing the move.
In the aftermath of atrocities and massacres, the internment of perpetrators—convicted as well as alleged—has long been a subject of discussion. There are, however, several troubling aspects about the current fixations on Tamerlan’s corpse.
For one thing, in contrast with other controversial burials, interest has been focused not only on spatial locations (where Tamerlane would be buried), but also on the religious aspects of the burial. One of the strangest headlines about the burial debate was entitled, “Boston Suspect’s Mortuary Offers Muslim Services.” This sort of headline and the shifts that underlie it mark the Boston bombers as different from previous mass murderers.
Let me be very clear – I have no interest in arguing for or against Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s burial rights. That said, I do not recall reading about the nature of the mortuary service held for Cho Seung-Hui, who killed 32 people and injured 17 in a shooting spree at Virginia Tech University in 2007. Although the pastor of his family church did speak to the media, his requests to remain anonymous were respected by the press.
In the case of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, services for the perpetrators were tangentially covered in the media. Any mention of religious orientation in relation to the burials was subsumed by details surrounding the family’s lack of knowledge about their sons’ capacity for mass murder.
A similar story emerged for Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people and injured 800 others in a bomb attack against a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. While Congress passed a law forbidding McVeigh, a military veteran, from being buried in Arlington National Cemetery, it took a bit of investigation to discover that the supposedly agnostic McVeigh was given last rites by a Catholic priest prior to his execution in 2001.
Heavily redacted military emails allegedly confirm that Osama Bin Laden was given an “Islamic burial,” yet most media coverage focused on his burial at sea, ostensibly done to ensure Bin Laden’s grave would not become a pilgrimage site.
On top of all this, discussions about Tsarnaev’s corpse and burial demonstrate widespread blindness about the broader context behind the incessant media coverage on the Boston bombers. Amid stories of facials, shoplifting convictions, and Tamerlan’s boxing career, as well as discussions about how these Caucasians were the wrong kind of white folk, whose actions could be explained by “ethnic Chechen honor codes,” critical details concerning the investigation and establishment of motive have been missing.
Given the purported motivation for the Boston attacks, religiosity as an integral component of this story may be understandable to a degree. Discussions about motive have also included the role played by—spoiler alert—the media and the Internet in radicalizing “home-grown extremists.” According to one relative, “[Tamerlan] was looking for connections between the wars in the Middle East and oppression of Muslim population around the globe…On the other hand, he did not hate Christians. He respected their faith. Never said anything bad about other religions. But he was angry that the world pictures Islam as a violent religion.”
Of course, anger with generalizations about Islam’s “violent” nature seems to be an irrational and illogical motive for committing violence; but then again, I have not read any accounts that Tamerlan exhibited much in the way of rational behavior.
There is, however, a crucial component missing in the analysis on motive, namely, that the nonstop onslaught of constant media coverage plays a role in creating motive, and fostering and facilitating extremism.
We cannot assess the Tsarnaev case without considering changes in patterns of mass-media consumption over the past few decades. Twenty-four hour media coverage, from the citizen journalism of social media to CNN’s around the clock “breaking news,” has proliferated, feeding an incessant demand for information. With constant coverage in all media sectors (print, Internet, radio), each atrocity raises the stakes exponentially. Debates on death politics and burial rites run the risk of eclipsing this invisible factor exacerbating contemporary violence.
The level of attention given to death tolls has also inadvertently desensitized societies to violence. Three died in the Boston Marathon bombings. Almost 3,000 died on 9/11. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, more than 4,000 American servicemen and women had been killed—to say nothing about the Iraqi civilian death toll.
To list the casualty count for each atrocity in the same sentence is considered taboo, as it implies an equivalency—or, more controversially—a lack thereof. However, as body counts loose their ability to terrorize, the target must become more illogical, ever more random, for mass violence to gain lasting attention from the media. We now live in a world where Christopher Dorner, a former police officer who killed four people in February 2013 in an apparent vendetta against the LA police department, is last week’s news. Even schoolyard shootings now fail to shock.
As Mark Juergensmeyer points out, the casualty count is not what matters most in media coverage on atrocities. It is the framing that is critical. To garner the obsessive interest of the media industry, acts of violence must become increasingly spectacular. Death tolls are simply not enough – carnage alone no longer sells. It is the packaging and marketing that counts. Although the Boston bombing had nowhere near the death toll of 9/11, the Boston marathon’s seeming randomness as a target attracted the spotlight.
Had three civilians been slain in a school shooting by a lone wolf Caucasian-American, it simply would not carry the same news-worthiness. That now-tired story fails to excite; it has become far too common. Instead, the new and senseless location of a marathon provides fresh narrative territory, a new “hook” for describing atrocity.
Similarly, the immigrant origins of Cho Seung-Hui, who was from South Korea, and his failure to assimilate at Virginia Tech present an aging narrative. Fascination, however, endures with the Tsarnaevs, who immigrated to the United States as children. They seemed so “American,” we are told—a code for “normal.” The near pornographic fixation with “their” and “our” dead bodies ratchets up the stakes incrementally, as does the obsessive attention to every detail of the perpetrators’ lives—from birth and citizenship to, literally, death certificate.
USA Today asked, “What to do with the corpse of a person suspected of a crime that horrified and terrorized a nation?” It stops and makes one think, doesn’t it? Or, rather—it should. Of course, we should all be patient. Wait for the dust to settle, and for the discourse of hysteria to gradually give way to reason.
Within a few weeks—perhaps as long as a month—the very same media now presenting round the clock updates on every aspect of the Boston bombers’ lives will inevitably open another oft- heard discussion, raised in the aftermath of other atrocities, but amounting to little more than an exercise in intellectual masturbation: the pressing necessity of refusing to give criminals and terrorists publicity for their actions.