Why is Netflix treating the Boston bombers as victims?

The woke elites’ pity for radical Islamists is just nauseating now.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Identity Politics USA

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Imagine if one of the streaming services made a documentary about the hard life of Dylann Roof, the racist mass murderer who shot up a black church in Charleston in South Carolina in 2015. Imagine if they depicted Roof as a cool, charismatic kid – ‘a charmer’, they might say – who only went off the rails because of how badly he’d been let down by American society. Imagine if they implied that it was the myth of the American Dream, the unattainability of that dream to ‘white trash’ kids like Roof, that pushed poor Dylann over the edge. Worse, imagine if they hinted that it was Roof’s feeling that he was always playing second fiddle to other races – especially the black race – that pushed him towards hyper-violence.

There would be outrage, right? Stop humanising a monster, the media would cry. Well, a streaming service has just done something very similar for a pair of hateful murderers, and the outrage has been notable by its absence.

It’s Netflix. The killers it portrays almost as victims are Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing 10 years ago this month. The doc is called American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing. It’s mostly typical of Netflix’s documentary style: pacy, highly dramatic, full of twists. But its most shocking twist is its pained efforts to contextualise the Tsarnaevs’ indiscriminate slaughter within the framework of ‘Islamophobia’. To depict their drift towards Islamist barbarism as an almost understandable response to the prejudices of American society.

It was on 15 April 2013 that the Tsarnaevs left two deadly rucksacks near the finishing line of the Boston Marathon. They exploded within seconds of each other. Anyone who has ever squeezed themselves into that crowd of patriotic Bostonians who gather every year to cheer the runners over the line – my brother has run the Boston Marathon twice, so I’ve been at the finishing line – will not have been surprised at the horrific impact on life and limb those bombs had. Three people were killed, including an eight-year-old boy, and more than 250 were injured. Many of the injuries were life-changing, as is made clear when the Netflix cameras pan out from victim Karen McWatters to reveal she has a prosthetic leg. The Tsarnaevs subsequently went on the run, during which time they shot dead a campus cop at MIT. Law enforcement eventually caught up with them. Tamerlan, the older brother, was killed. Dzhokhar, just 19 at the time, was captured and is currently in a supermax jail awaiting execution.

Because ‘only’ three people were killed in this bombing, it isn’t always treated as one of the big Islamist atrocities. Ninety were massacred at the Bataclan in Paris in 2015. Twenty-two at the Manchester Arena in 2017. Eighty-six in the Nice truck attack of 2016. And yet the relative smallness of the Boston attack should not detract from what a grotesque assault it was on the free life of the United States. The marathon famously takes place on Patriots’ Day, when Bostonians celebrate the first American victories in the Revolutionary War against the British. It is a day of camaraderie, of solidarity, as so well expressed in the citizenry’s noisy spiriting of the marathon runners over the line. To leave bombs in that most democratic of audiences is to express contempt not only for life, but for America itself.

Which makes Netflix’s treatment of the atrocity all the more perplexing. American Manhunt takes a two-pronged approach. The first – the story of law enforcement’s hunt for the murderers – is fine. (I was pleased that the doc-makers raised questions about officialdom’s decision to completely lock Boston down during the post-bombing manhunt, a precursor to the lockdowns we all experienced when Covid arrived.) The second – the story of the Tsarnaev brothers’ tough struggles in a society as Islamophobic as the US – is not fine. Far from it.

This twist occurs in the first episode. We’re told this heinous act did not take place in a vacuum. It took place in a society in which the ‘flames of Islamophobia’, as one interviewee puts it, are always being stoked by right-wing demagogues. Halfway through the first episode, there’s a reverse-motion section, where the film rewinds from the two bombs going off in Boston to American soldiers in Iraq, George W Bush’s arrogant face, and the aftermath of 9/11, when, in the words of one of the talking heads, bigots made life ‘difficult’ for Muslims. The message is clear: there was a moral context to the Tsarnaevs’ savagery.

We are told that Tamerlan in particular, the more radical brother, came to believe that American society is ‘built against Muslims, against us’. Rather than challenge this nauseating self-pity, Netflix pretty much indulges it. We’re shown clips of crowds of Americans gathering in the wake of 9/11 to express their angst about Islamic terrorism. In one clip someone is holding a placard that says, ‘No to terror’. What a bigot. We are invited to think: who are the villains here – the two brothers who attacked the American people, or the American people?

This amoral drawing of a line between America’s alleged Islamophobia and the horror in Boston gives rise to some of the strangest scenes I’ve seen in a documentary in a long time. The doc features an investigative journalist called Phillip Martin who says he was really worried in the aftermath of the bombing, before we knew who the perpetrators were, because right-wingers were going around saying, ‘This is clearly the work of Islamic terrorists’. There was ‘an opportunity for bigots to bask in their assumptions’, he says. But they were right, yes? Is it really bigotry in an era of Islamist terrorism to think an act of terrorism was probably carried out by Islamists?

The doc introduces us to Ismail Fenni of the Islamic Society of Boston. He says that when the bombs went off he got a ‘sinking feeling’ that this might have been ‘committed by somebody who is a Muslim’. That’s your concern when a bomb explodes? That a Muslim might have done it? It brings to mind the late, great Norm Macdonald, who once tweeted: ‘What terrifies me is if ISIS were to detonate a nuclear device and kill 50million Americans. Imagine the backlash against peaceful Muslims.’ If your response to acts of terrorism is ‘Oh no, there’s going to be Islamophobia’, your moral compass is probably in need of repair.

The American Dream gets it in the neck, too. Indeed, the second episode is titled ‘The American Dream’. We’re told that the Tsarnaevs’ father came to the US with his family because he ‘saw the American Dream [in] Hollywood movies and decided that that’s what he wanted’, but all he got was ‘overcrowded’ accommodation and hardship. And? Why is this relevant to the Boston bombing? Many migrants to America struggle to make a life for themselves, but they don’t blow the legs off innocent people.

Then the doc really goes off the rails. It strongly implies that Tamerlan was a victim, too. A victim of American arrogance, American prejudice, American racial favouritism. Tamerlan was a boxer. He dreamed of representing America in the Olympics. But the rules were changed so that only American citizens could represent America. Tamerlan’s acquaintances uncritically tell the doc that Tamerlan’s view was: ‘I’m Muslim, they don’t want me to represent the United States’; ‘It’s all rigged, I’m Muslim’. A journalist from the Boston Globe sums up Tamerlan’s view as follows: ‘[This] society is built against Muslims, against us.’

Here’s the alarming thing: Netflix’s handwringing over Islamophobia, its depiction of Muslims as a victimised identity, is of a piece with Tamerlan’s self-pity, his belief that every hardship he encountered was down to the fact that he was a Muslim in racist America.

Then comes the most disturbing part of the doc. One of Tamerlan’s boxing acquaintances describes Tamerlan’s self-pity in hyper-racial terms. Tamerlan saw his ‘Jewish friend’ who was ‘living the American Dream’, he says. This Jew has ‘got all the opportunities, he doesn’t even have to work, he’s rich as hell’, we’re told, while poor Tamerlan ‘doesn’t have the same opportunities’. Now, this is no doubt an accurate description of Tamerlan’s narcissism and anti-Semitism. But Netflix gives no editorial pushback against this view, no counteracting comments. It’s just left to hang there. What will identitarian types think when they watch this? Some, I have no doubt, will think: ‘Bloody Jews. Poor Muslims.’ Their woke prejudices will be fortified.

The lesson I took from this documentary is that the cult of the victim is a dangerous creed. It is so clear now that Islamist terror is the militant wing of the politics of grievance, the armed wing of the Islamophobia industry and its ceaseless depiction of Muslims as the victims of a hateful West. The Tsarnaev brothers imbibed it all. They thought every difficulty in their life was down to Islamophobia; that ‘Muslim nations were being stomped on by the West’ and ‘Israel and the rich Jews were behind it’, as one acquaintance sums up Tamerlan’s worldview. The marathon bombing can be seen as a violent outburst of self-pity, an act of rage designed to avenge the oppression fantasies of two brothers convinced that America betrayed them. In truth, they betrayed America. America gave their family refuge; they responded by massacring American citizens.

This doc points to the warped commonalities between the woke elite and radical Islamists. Both seem repulsed by the Western world, both feel morally exhausted with the idea of America, and both are convinced that racism is everywhere. The Tsarnaev brothers’ twisted propaganda chimes alarmingly well with the Western identitarian worldview.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics USA


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