By Ashok Malik
Apr 21, 2013
It would stand to reason that news events lead to the formation of an opinion. In today’s frenetic, 24/7 media environment, complemented by rapid-fire social media platforms, news events appear to exist only to justify and validate a pre-formed opinion. One saw this disturbing verity play itself out in real time on Friday, April 19, as the Boston police battled two gunmen — later identified as a pair of disaffected Chechen brothers who had metamorphosed from ordinary migrants to crazed jihadists.
Through the day (in India it was night and early morning in Boston), it was unclear who the assailants were. It was becoming apparent that there was a pattern to the bombing of the Boston Marathon, the gunfire at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus on April 18, a series of seemingly random crimes — including a robbery at a convenience store — and the general chaos in an otherwise genteel city best known for its educational institutions. What was unclear was who was responsible.
All this led to a day of surmise, guesswork and speculation. It told us a lot about the nature of human society and the beast called the media-social media machine — frankly one now has to see this as a continuum, rather than as two distinct and oppositional forces. Above all it told us a lot about Indians in the opinion space, whether on television or Twitter.
It helped (or perhaps it didn’t help, depending on where you stood in the media circus) that the authorities weren’t saying much. After the Boston Marathon attack, the local police chief actually uttered phrases like “I don’t know” and “We don’t know yet”.
This was strange and astonishing for most Indians because terrorist attacks in this country are followed, usually within hours, by long and copious press conferences or private briefings by the police. At these the officer in question usually makes a definitive pronouncement: “We are close to cracking the case”; or “We have information that the terrorists are linked to HuJI (Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami) and have escaped to Bangladesh”; or “The terrorists belong to a sleeper cell of the Indian Mujahideen that crossed the Line of Control and entered Pakistan for training at a Lashkar camp”. Occasionally “Hindu terror” groups are invoked. In either case lots of arrests and “taken-into-custody” cases are reported, even if conviction rates remain appalling and one doesn’t quite know what happened to those arrested even years later.
In the meantime, of course, the opinion industry is in full swing — debating domestic jihad, international jihad, Pakistani perfidy, the radicalisation of Indian Islam, the radicalisation of the Hindu right, the causes of alleged alienation — 1761, 1947, 1992, 2002, occasionally 1206, take your pick.
In the absence of any such trigger or assistance from the Boston authorities, what did the Indian opinion industry do? It lurched from hypothesis to hypothesis. To interrogate social media platforms such as Twitter on Friday, or even to watch some mainstream news channels, was a massive learning experience. It was almost as if an entire ecosystem — big-shot journalists, anonymous Twitter folk, everybody — was waiting for a name, an identity and a proper noun to say, “I told you so”. The analytical articles, the columns, the pieces-to-camera, the sermons, and the series of tweets: everything was ready and waiting. All they needed was for those blessed gunmen to be named.
A whole menu of options was available, depending on which socio-economic or ethnic group the gunmen belonged to. If the terrorists where white and rich, their situation could be described as the moral crisis of capitalism and of a decadent American society that feeds on xenophobia and racism. If the terrorists were white and poor, their situation could be described as the moral crisis of capitalism and of a decadent American society that creates huge income inequalities and has little for the underprivileged. Taken to a logical extreme, the predicament of the white, poor terrorist could presumably be blamed on George W. Bush, the Iraq war and the financial collapse of 2008.
Midway through the day, the name of an Indian student, missing for the past month, came up as a possible suspect. This man, the most unfortunate of the Boston Brahmins, since even his caste was brought into the discussion, again offered multiple options. Was he a lone wolf who didn’t fit into American society? In that case American society and its inherent exclusionary tendencies would be responsible for pushing him over the edge. Did he even remotely have links with Hindu groups in the United States? If so, he could be labelled a “Hindu terrorist”, part of a dangerous phenomenon that even the prescient Rahul Gandhi had warned of in a conversation with the American ambassador, as reported by WikiLeaks.
After the Boston Marathon assault, it was found the attacker(s) had used pressure-cooker bombs. This provided a clue, admittedly a slight clue, that the terrorists may have had a South Asian connection or at least shopped in a South Asian neighbourhood. After all, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are more likely to be familiar with pressure cookers than any other ethnic group in the US. So were the attackers South Asian Muslims?
If they were Pakistanis, it was easy. The country could be excoriated and denounced as the embodiment of hell. If they were Indian Muslims, it opened up space for even more debate. Either this was absolute and undeniable evidence that Indian Muslims were part of the global jihad and could not be trusted, or it spoke for how an oppressive, Hindu-dominated Indian system had forced its minorities into acts of terror — an unfortunate occurrence that could probably be traced back to Narendra Modi and 2002.
If it was found that the terrorists were Arabs, a link with Al Qaeda would immediately be pointed to. Scenarios would be drawn up of dozens (maybe hundreds) of sleeper cells across the towns and cities of America. The dangers of withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan would be stressed. Finally, US President Barack Obama would be mocked as a naïve, President who was running away from an unavoidable, defining and cataclysmic conflict.
Everything was set; the arguments and counter-arguments, the tweets and counter-tweets, the op-eds and counter op-eds had been prepared and composed and written. Alas, the damned attackers turned out to be Chechens. Bloody spoilsports!