What Does a Terrorist Look Like?

How the Boston bombing has played with America's definition of fear.

Two weeks ago, the American public sat with bated breath to learn of the identities of those behind the Boston Marathon explosions.

Long before law enforcement learned the names of suspected bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the media and the public clamored for information that would help to orient their grief: Were the perpetrators “dark skinned,” as it had initially been reported?

Was it an act of Al Qaeda?

As the story unfolded, I kept my TV tuned to the disaster-porn-style coverage that dominated cable news while new floors were installed in my kitchen. From my living room, I heard the two installers talking:

“They’re Russians, can you believe it?! Russians!”

“Yeah, but they’re still Muslim, though.”

Since 9/11, the American public has crafted a very narrow lens of what terrorism looks like. The nature of the violence itself has become more particular under this definition (public bombings and explosions) and the face of terrorism has gotten more phenotypically, ethnically, and religiously limited as well, necessitating the qualifier “domestic” in the appropriate instances to signal occurrences that fall outside of this definition.

But the Boston Marathon tragedy complicates the contemporary understanding of terrorism, as it was committed by a relatively young, white Muslim who was a U.S. citizen. The surveillance shots of the brothers show two “normal-looking” American young men, and yet there has been no indication that brofiling will start anytime soon in order subvert other potential terror plots. Instead, there has been a focus on Tsarnaev’s ethnicity (Chechnyan) and his religion so as to align him with the working understanding of what terrorism looks like.

But other terrorist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, are seldom discussed as such, while individual acts of terror committed by white men are dismissed as acts of isolation committed by the mentally insane. Similarly, the media goes to great lengths to find psychological explanations for acts of gun violence committed by white men, including terror-inducing mass murders at Columbine, the Colorado movie theater shooting, and more recently, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

It’s been more than a week since the American public learned the identities of those behind the Boston Marathon bombing, and the collective understanding of terrorism has not been modified, making the country more vulnerable to indiscriminate hate—the very origin of the thing itself.