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7 Experts Who Want to Reframe the Boston Bombing Media Coverage

Much media coverage of the worldview and motivation of the suspects in the Boston bombing case--one now dead--was sensational and provocative. Very little of it, however, relied on experts who use contemporary--rather than outdated and discredited social science.. Discussions of the possible role of religion were often stilted or stifled. Contemporary sociological theory contends that:

  • Most people who join social movements, political movements, or religious movements are not mentally ill or stupid. They have adopted an ideology and constructed an identity that in their view justifies their actions--whether these actions are deemed constructive or destructive by society.
  • The vast majority of movement activists never engage in violence.
  • There is no correlation linking religious piety with violence.
  • The radicalization process itself does not cause violence.
  • Dissent, movement activism, and non-violent civil disobedience are part of the democratic process in civil society.
So we asked a variety of respected academics, researchers, and analysts of movements and political violence to craft an answer to this question: "As a person with expertise, what would you tell a reporter who wanted to know what she or he needs to know to craft a better, more informed story about the Boston bombings as details emerge?
Too little media coverage is relying on actual sociological research conducted during the past thirty years, and much of it is recycling outdated or discredited theories developed before the Civil Rights Movement led to major revisions in social science understandings of people who join social, political, or religious movements.

All of the experts who contributed to this collection are recognized experts in their field. We sought out a variety of opinions, and have reproduced them here without editing except for inserting the word "suspected" as appropriate. Some of the comments below will be provocative, and for some contain offensive contentions. They reflect a variety of disciplines and analytic models. Nonetheless, we hope they indicate constructive pathways to better and more thoughtful reporting.


Julie Ingersoll

Understanding the motives of the suspected Boston Bombers is complicated by the limited way we think about what "religion" is. We discuss religion as though there is a pure form of it that exists apart from the various cultural and historical examples of it. We cannot assess whether Islam (or Christianity or Judaism...) is essentially violent (or peaceful) because there is no essential form of it; there are only Muslims, Christians and Jews.

To go one step further, we try to fit individual religious people on a spectrum of "religious-ness" that ranges from secularized to devout; then we conflate devotion with zeal and tie it to extremism. But the social science data shows that people who live lives of religious devotion and are well versed in the teachings of their traditions are much less likely to become "radicalized;" there is something of an inoculation effect.

One who is well-schooled in Islam, its history its various forms and traditions, when encountering advocates for religious violence, recognizes them for what they are. A new convert who is ignorant of the tradition and full of zeal (this is in many ways a "less religious" person) is more susceptible to the simple black and white analysis of would-be terrorists. I write about this here: "Radicalization and Religion, Cont'd;"

See also the Brennan Center's publication Rethinking Radicalization here.

Finally, we are not paying enough attention to the gender of the perpetrators of violence. What makes the Tsarnayev brothers more like Dylan Klebold and Adam Lanza than Osama Bin Laden is their social position as marginalized, troubled, angry young men. That they are also Muslim and, to some extent, frame their response to their frustrations in terms of Islam, may be less important than gender. There has been very little discussion of Klebold's or Lanza's religion.

More here:

“Why Guys Throw Bombs” and here The Roar of Young Male Rage

Julie Ingersoll is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches.


Cynthia Burack

With the bombing of the Boston Marathon, U.S. citizens have experienced another in a series of violent attacks that targets civilians and aims to cause massive harm and death in pursuit of a larger cause to which the perpetrators have dedicated themselves. It's unfortunate that in our attempt to comprehend what drives such terrorists we often recur to cognitive shortcuts that reduce complex phenomena to simple causes.

Today, the most common of these shortcuts are: for the left, religious fanaticism; for the right, (radical) Islam. What is important to remember in the frightening aftermath of such attacks is that what we now call terrorism is not a new phenomenon.

Although each fresh case must always be understood in its own cultural and historical context, there have always been such attacks and attackers. And they have come from the political left as well as the political right.

It is useful to me to consider such attacks as having political, sociological, demographic, and psychological coordinates, combinations of which contribute to the destructive outbursts we have come to know well. This complexity makes it all too easy to fall back on dominant social narratives that seem to explain much while they do the work of entrenching suspicion against whole populations.

A final caution: usually when we consider the psychology of violent terrorists we abstract that psychology from the larger social contexts in which we all are embedded. Thus, many useful accounts of psychologies of scapegoating, vilification, and "othering" are not DSM-style diagnoses of mentally ill individuals but, rather, fascinating analyses of group psychologies.

We can start with Vamik Volkan's The Need to Have Enemies and Allies and Bloodlines,

Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians (available as a PDF online),

C. Fred Alford's What Evil Means to Us, and

Carol Mason'sKilling for Life.

Cynthia Burack, Professor, Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, The Ohio State University


Lauren Langman and Devorah Kalekin-Fishman

Alienation may result from the one-dimensional thought fostered by consumerism and advanced by the mass media. This might lead to the same kinds of alienation that truncates the self, and renders the person isolated and devoid of meaning. See generally Marcuse (1964)

While alienation may very well be a structural condition, its consequences may elicit various emotions ranging from loneliness to fear and anxiety, and even to anger and disgust. But the important point here, actually quite controversial, is that people may very well be alienated, but may not necessarily feel it and/or express discontent.

How do people cope with alienation? We suggest that people in diverse social locations, not necessarily class positions, may or may not have emotional reactions to various social conditions. In general, for example, many people seek amelioration and often seek support by repressing the recognition of adversity and/or seeking gratifications.

Others may seek various kinds of information, from media and/or social networks, (proximate or virtual), that provide information and interpretations. These experiences may be shared. Various groups, with or without specific leaders, may then attempt to develop frames which explain adversity and suggest courses of action informed by a vision of what might be possible.

Adapted from L. Langman, and D. Kalekin-Fishman, 2013. "Alienation and Social Movements." The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. Copyright © 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the authors.

Lauren Langman, Sociology, Loyola University, Chicago.

Devorah Kalekin-FishmanUniversity of Haifa.
Jeffrey M. Bale

There is no groundswell of "Islamophobia," a bogus concept if there ever was one, and a label that is generally applied in a highly abusive and propagandistic fashion in order to silence anyone who is critical of Islam or Islamism, no matter how justifiably. Unfortunately, it is not only Islamist activists who are nowadays using the term "Islamophobia" in this slanderous fashion in order to demonize their opponents: the same tendency has increasingly been adopted by private "watchdog" groups that monitor the radical right, which apparently have yet to recognize that Islamism is among the most brutal and extreme right-wing ideologies in the contemporary world.

If anything, in the Boston case there has been the usual groundswell of "Islam apologism" and "Islamist apologism," which manifest themselves, as always, in absurd denials that the bombers were motivated by radical interpretations of Islam. As if they had mere personal grievances. In reality, it is the adoption of a radical ideology, Islamism, that is the driver for acts of jihadist terrorism, just as the adoption of other radical ideologies (ethno-nationalism, Marxism-Leninism, neo-Nazism, Christian Identity, eco-radicalism, and the list goes on and on) causes other individuals to engage in acts of violence.

The media never has any qualms about identifying the ideological motivations of other types of extremists - it is only Islamism that they studiously ignore and pretend is not a causal factor, even in cases where the perpetrators proudly proclaim their adherence to that doctrine (which is in fact the norm). Note, e.g. the following illustrative absurd statements.

The first was made by Secretary of State John Kerry: "I think the world has had enough of people who have no belief system...but who just want to kill people because they don't like what they see." No belief system? Since when is Islamism not a belief system? How delusional can Kerry be?

The second appeared in an article about an Armenian convert to Islam and Islamism who apparently played some role in radicalizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev: "Based on preliminary written interviews with Dzhokar in his hospital bed, U.S. officials believe the brothers were motivated by their religious views. It has not been clear, however, what those views were." It's not clear that their religious views were based on radical interpretations of Islam? Gee, perhaps they were motivated by Mormonism or Buddhism.

Jeffrey M. Bale Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program Associate Professor, Graduate School of International Policy and Management Monterey Institute of International Studies


Mustafa E. Gurbuz

"Explaining complex human behavior (especially in the case of terrorism) entails a vigilant analysis of a number of structural/institutional factors. Due to the mysterious nature of Islam among the Western audience, we are often too quick to explain things at individual level factors such as strong religious beliefs.

It took a long time for Durkheim to convince scientists in the late 19th century to accept that suicide is a social act (not about an individual's psychological feelings but about patterns of social relations).

From a sociological viewpoint, explaining a Marxist radicalization or an Islamist one (or a right-wing Christian extremism) would highlight similar patterns of deviance: feelings of alienation, youth delinquency, identity search, unemployment, experiences of exclusion (prejudice or discrimination), social learning of violence, and social networks. During the Cold War era, expressions of anti-Imperialism was framed through Marxist leftist discourse; whereas, nowadays it is through Islamist rhetoric.

The roots causes of radicalization, however, are the very same factors of deviance. In this sense, some media outlets' emphasis on terrorists' increasing devoutness to Islam is counterproductive, and dangerously hurts a billion Muslims at large, who are peacefully living all around the globe. If devoutness to Islam is an explanatory factor, we need to see these type of attacks everywhere, everyday (considering the fact that 1/3 of all Muslims are living in the West).

I do not suggest that one's belief does not matter; instead, I suggest to be vigilant in our analyses of complex human behavior and especially terrorism, which needs to be understood from a sociological eye."

See also: Piety and Radicalization: Is There a Link?

Mustafa E. Gurbuz, Post-doctoral Scholar Department of Sociology, University of South Florida.


Bill Fletcher, Jr.

The first thing to consider is that this country has an inconsistent view of terror. Dangers and atrocities aimed at whites or which can arbitrarily affect whites are considered terror or terrorist. That which affects people of color or dissident groups is not.

Second, much of the world perceives the policies of the US as grounded in terror. Third, the Boston bombings need not to have had an international connection in order to be terrorist or atrocities. The Columbine massacre was not motivated by politics, but we actually do not know whether the true motivation of the Boston bombings were political either.

There are a lot of angry people out there; some driven by politics, others by religion, and others by personal demons. It is important to not engage in snap judgements.

Bill Fletcher, Jr., racial justice, labor and international activist and writer

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