Elena Rodina

Mediated images of terrorists in Western democracies

The project I am focusing on is the study of mediated images of terrorists in Western democracies. More specifically, I am looking into two case studies: the terrorist attack during the Boston marathon in the U.S. in 2013, and the 2018 attack that occurred near Operá in Paris. While the majority of existing research focuses on the frameworks generated by mass media, I want to complicate this narrative by looking into the discourse that emerges both in the media and in the immigrant communities.  To do so, I focus on analyzing journalistic texts discussing the attacks, and conduct contextual analysis of the posts and discussions in blogs and social networks authored by members of the Chechen diasporas in the United States and in France.

Based on preliminary studies, I suggest that the mass media, by emphasizing the Chechen origin of the terrorists, create an image of the “other,” increasing the sense of a “moral panic” (Hall, 1978) in the society and friction between “us” and “them” (Said, 1981; Appadurai, 2006; Eid, 2014). At the same time, the Chechen immigrant community tries to cope with this alienation, and construct alternative discourses that differ from the mainstream, dominant portrayal of the Chechen terrorists.

My first case study focuses on the terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon in 2013. These attacks were executed by two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev. It was soon discovered that they were coming from a family of ethnic Chechens, and although the brothers never lived in Chechnya, the press immediately linked their Chechen origin to the violent past of the Chechen republic, creating a link between its war-torn past and the terrorist attacks that the brothers performed in Boston. The majority of the news coverage emphasized the contrast of Tsarnaevs’ “seeming normality,” expressed through being properly Americanized, to their hidden otherness, the latter being rooted in their Chechen origins:

With their baseball hats and sauntering gaits, they appeared to friends and neighbors like ordinary American boys. But the Boston bombing suspects were asylees from another world — the blood, rubble and dirty wars of the Russian Caucasus… Hidden behind the lives they had been leading in Massachusetts is a biography containing old resentments that appear to have mutated into radical Islamic violence (The Washington Post, April 19, 2013).

In my second case study, I look into the media coverage of the attack near Parisian Operá in May, 2018. It was performed by a young man, Khamzat Azimov, who was born in Chechnya, but who moved to France with his parents when he was about three years old. Similarly to the American press, French outlets quickly linked his Chechenness to the attack, suggesting that his origin influenced his later radicalization. Perhaps due to the fact that the number of Chechen immigrants in France is much higher than in the United States, the press has been even less forgiving than in the case with the Boston attacks. Thus, many outlets explained that Russians of the Chechen origin were very often recruited by ISIS and radicalized, and that “7 to 8% of French who were involved with the jihadist organizations in Syria and Iraq were of the Chechen origin” (Le Parisien, May 13, 2018).

While the dominant discourses on these attacks are shaped by the mainstream media, in both cases Chechen diasporas contribute to this discussion. In the age of digital media and social networks, the voices of the Chechen immigrants have gained more visibility: they can connect and reach out to each other by forming groups and posting comments on social networks, and rely on social networking in order to compete with the mainstream media in shaping the public discourse.

Based on preliminary internet ethnography of the on-line posts made by the members of the Chechen diasporas in the United States and France in response to these two terrorist attacks, two main themes emerge in these discussions. One is the expression of shame and responsibility for the deeds of the attackers, while the second one is the attempt to distantiate these “villains” from the Chechenness that the mainstream media is so heavily relying on in shaping their public images. These two contradicting themes are overlapping in these discussions, with the same discussants often expressing shame and responsibility for the deed of their “compatriots,” while simultaneously stating that the attackers were not “real” Chechens, were not truly exposed to Chechen culture and traditions, and therefore their actions cannot be explained by their origins. For instance, one of the French-based Chechen commentators in an on-line (Facebook) discussion of the attack near Operá, writes:

I don’t have words… My brain refuses to accept what happened in Paris. He was born in 1997, so he did not see neither the first [war], nor the second war in Chechnya could leave a deep imprint on him. They came to France, lived off the charity of the very people he attacked with a knife… He killed and wounded women, a real soldier of the Islamic state… there, in Iraq, people left their wives and ran, and here he attacked the women, I am just shocked! So parents, tell us how he was a good boy, because he has become exactly what you have brought him up to become.

The main sentiment in these diaspora-formed discussions is, however, their contestation of the image of a “Chechen terrorist” shaped by the mainstream media, and their willingness to change this mainstream perception. In addition to discussions within diasporas, there were other steps that the Chechen members of the immigrant communities took in order to do so: for instance, after the Operá attack, members of Chechen diaspora in France organized an anti-terrorist march in Paris to express their condemnation of the acts of violence; in the United States, some prominent Chechen immigrants reached out to the mainstream media directly in order to have a chance to make their point of view available to the public.

The major questions that this paper raises are: 1. How do the immigrant communities address the mainstream discourse on “Chechen terrorists” that is inherently alienating them from the society in which they live? 2. What are the tactics that they use in order to affect this mainstream discourse and how can we measure the effectiveness of these tactics? 3. Can this generation of an “alternative” discourse emerging from within the community empower its members or, to the contrary, alienate them even further?