Friday, April 19, 2013

Some lessons in geography - and why they are IRRELEVANT

Part I: Lessons in Geography

It seems that the United States is populated by people who couldn't identify a country if it jumped up and down on a map, waving its flag and shouting its name. Well, okay. Perhaps the majority of my compatriots are not quite so foolish, but watching today's coverage of the events in Boston sure have made it seem that way.

I awoke this morning to several emails and Facebook messages and posts telling me rather conflictingly that the Boston bombers were from both Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan. A quick search of the news revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers were ethnically Chechen, and that at least one of them was born in Kyrgyzstan. (As I'm leaving for my second trip to Kyrgyzstan in less than a month, you can see why people thought to message me about this.)

As the day went by and more news agencies began reporting on the Tsarnaevs, things got kind of confusing. The ethnically Chechen Tsarnaev family seems to have moved around a bit: from Kyrgyzstan to Dagestan (in southwestern Russia, next door to Chechnya). Before moving to the US, one or both of the brothers may have lived in Kazakhstan - but it's hard to know, as various mainstream media news sources seem to think that Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Chechnya, and Dagestan are interchangeable terms for the same place. AHEM: They're not. Slate put out a nice get-your-geography-straight article on the topic. I'm going to give you what Slate didn't: Maps. Courtesy of Google Maps. You could've looked this up yourself.

 photo map_whereiskyrgyzstan_zps993345da.jpg
Kyrgyzstan is the little country in pink. I'll be there in three weeks.

 photo map_whereiskazakhstan_zps957fed7d.jpg
Kazakhstan is located just to the north of Kyrgyzstan and is a helluva lot bigger.

 photo map_whereischechnya_zps26313c49.jpg
The Republic of Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation, and is located where the A and the little pink blotch are.

 photo map_whereisdagestan_zpsbec7b749.jpg
Dagestan is located just to the east of Chechnya, and borders the Caspian Sea.

Just last night in class, one of my professors was telling us that her husband (who is from the Czech Republic) is often annoyed when Americans confuse/conflate the Czech Republic with Chechnya. I found myself thinking surely that doesn't happen too often. I mean, other than the "ch" sound they sound nothing alike! Well, apparently people are idiots: Czechs Aghast as Twitter Users Conflate Them with Boston's Chechen Suspects. Arrrgh. Seriously?? 

 photo map_whereisczechrep_zpse047f054.jpg
So for the geographically challenged among you, this is the Czech Republic.

Part II: Why this is all totally IRRELEVANT

This morning, when there wasn't much information out there on the Tsarnaev brothers, other than that they were from Kyrgyzstan and/or Chechnya, I found myself trying to figure out why Chechens from Kyrgyzstan would be setting off bombs in Boston. It didn't compute. Sure, Chechens have been committing acts of terrorism for years, including taking a theater hostage in Moscow in 2002 (resulting in over 100 dead) and the atrocious crime against the school in Beslan in which nearly 400 people (mostly children) died. These and other acts of terrorism were "justified" by terrorists demanding freedom for the Republic of Chechnya from Russian rule. As the US isn't exactly Russia's staunchest ally, it seemed totally bizarre to me that Chechens would be randomly bombing Americans. 

I haven't met many Chechens in my life, and I've only ever had a lengthy conversation with one - a shopkeeper in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (There is a large ethnically Chechen population in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.) Anyway, the Chechen woman that I met in Bishkek was... well let's just say that she was obsessed with sex, and certainly far more into arranging sexual trysts than terrorist attacks!

The Kyrgyz-Chechen connection kept bugging me; it seemed off somehow. And then I learned what was wrong with this scenario, what makes everything written above completely irrelevant: 

The Tsarnaev brothers, ages 26 and 19, have been living in the US for approximately ten years. Do the math here, people. The elder brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the one killed in the shootout with police this morning, came to the US when he was 16 years old. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the target of the ongoing manhunt in Boston, came here when he was 9. These are not recent immigrants. These are people who grew to adulthood here in the United States. Whatever happened to these two people to radicalize them, to turn them into terrorists, happened to them HERE IN THE U.S. I can only imagine that for "foreign-looking" boys with "foreign sounding" names, growing up in the US in the decade following September 11th was not easy. That gives a bit of context to the quote alleged to Tamerlan Tsarnaev that's been all over the internet today: "I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them." 

At this point, we don't know what set these fellows off. Were they harassed, growing up, for being foreigners? Were they radicalized by someone they met either in real life or via the internet? Did they have a political agenda or did they just think that bombs were cool? We don't know.

But really. Leave the geography out of it. These guys grew up here, in the United States, in our culture. Chew on that.

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