In hashing out what happened on that dark day three years ago, it’s important to consider the Bay State’s history as an apocalyptic ground zero
There is no shining beacon on the hill in Boston.
There is a shiny gold dome capping the Massachusetts State House just a short walk down to the site of the Boston Marathon bombing.
When the Tsarnaev brothers were announced as suspects in the 2013 attack, the search began for a motive. Most reporters missed the clues indicating the Tsarnaev brothers had been swept up in an apocalyptic mission based on a marginal and much–disputed Islamic prophecy about apocalyptic End Times and the proper role for religious heroes. That this was an actual belief system for a relatively small group of Muslim militants became more apparent when we saw black flags being carried in the Mideast by ISIS terrorists as they swept through Syria.
Some terrorism experts debated whether or not the ISIS “Khorasan Group” is part of the al Qaeda network. They are missing the big picture. They don’t understand that we are witnessing the emergence of an apocalyptic Islamic army drawing devout young men like a magnet to the Middle East, just like the Crusades drew young Christian men toward Jerusalem. In both cases the mission is to reclaim Jerusalem from the “infidels.” ISIS is not just a terrorist splinter group; it’s part of a global apocalyptic religious movement.
There is no social science evidence, however, that religious people who take prophecies seriously are any more or less stupid or crazy than their neighbors who do not. The motivations and actions of people in apocalyptic movements make sense to them according to an internal script based on a particular reading of apocalyptic prophecy in sacred text.
Apocalypticism, then, is the belief in an approaching momentous confrontation between good and evil during which hidden truths will be revealed and society will be dramatically altered. For some it means the arrival of a godly messenger—the Messiah—who ushers in the end of time itself and the beginning of heaven on earth.
Apocalypticism is an American tradition. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz use apocalyptic warnings about immoral and evil people threatening the existence of the United States. President Ronald Reagan routinely used apocalyptic language to appeal to conservative Christian evangelicals, many of whom ponder whether we are living in the End Times. Reagan was doing this when he spoke of the “shining city on the hill.” This was a misquote.
The original quote is by Puritan minister John Winthrop, who helped found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop spoke of a city on a hill. Boston at the time was part of a religious theocracy that executed alleged witches and political dissidents. Punishing the wicked through purifying violence was part of preparing the way for the apocalyptic return of Jesus Christ to the New Jerusalem: Boston.
Winthrop was paraphrasing a quote from the Bible: “a city upon a hill,” a phrase from Matthew 5:14 in the parable of “Salt and Light,” taken from the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus of Nazareth.
In Islamic sacred belief, Jesus of Nazareth is a prophet who helps prepare the way for the Mahdi, an End Times messiah. Terrorists in al Qaeda believe the Mahdi will establish a global Islamic Caliphate after the heroic warriors of Islam carrying the Black Flags of Khorasan recapture Jerusalem. A video on the Black Flags of Khorasan was posted on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube page. Now we see the black flags raised in an attempt to rebuild the Muslim Caliphate and take control of the Mideast as the first step for a totalitarian form of Muslim fundamentalism to rule the world and pave the path for the fulfillment of sacred prophecy and the end of time itself.
The Tsarnaev brothers apparently saw themselves as heroes taking part in this apocalyptic mission by striking a blow at the blasphemous claim that Boston is the cradle of liberty in a land blessed by God. The vast majority of devout Muslims find this interpretation of sacred text to be appalling.
Scenes from hell
The scenes are of a horrific apocalypse with smoke and screams and sirens and blood. Some people are running toward the victims of the first blast when a second concussion explodes—shattering windows and lives and families forever. We all watch the television coverage with the same feeling of dread and helplessness that we recall from the terror attacks of Sept 11, 2001. Some of the terrorists from that attack flew out of Logan Airport. Could these attacks be related? Or is this the work of domestic right-wing fanatics such as the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995? That attack was launched on the date of the battles in Lexington and Concord between British soldiers and the revolutionary armed resistance we now applaud on Patriots’ Day. If history had turned out in favor of the British forces, the Minutemen would be dismissed today as a rabble of terrorists.
In Colorado for a conference, I immediately begin trading emails with other researchers who study terrorism and political violence. Is the Boston Marathon bombing the work of domestic right-wing fanatics or militant Islamic zealots? Fielding calls and emails from reporters, I choose to provide only background suggestions and ask not to be quoted. It could be either sector or some other set of perpetrators. Jessica Stern, an internationally famous terrorism expert based at Harvard, lays out the arguments in an excellent essay in Time magazine looking at the motives of groups related to al Qaeda versus domestic right-wing anti-government groups.
I am staying with friends in Denver who return home the day after the bombing to find me sitting at their kitchen table scribbling on a chart. One box is empty. I cannot figure out how domestic terrorists could explain to their followers and potential recruits why they bombed a sporting event in Boston, the iconic cradle of liberty in their worldview. This is the city of the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere, and the “Shot Heard ’Round the World.” They call themselves Patriots because they imagine they are challenging a federal government as abusive as the British overlords in 1775. Patriots’ Day and organized sports are practically sacraments in their milieu. “I think it is probably connected to Islamic insurgents,” I tell my friends. I then send out an email to several private discussion lists warning of a possible Islamophobic backlash.
Ironically, I had just spent a week at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder where I sat on a panel discussing the relationship between apocalyptic demonization and violence. When the suspects are identified, the Facebook page of Tamerlan Tsarnaev is scanned for clues, and what strikes me is the apocalyptic prophecy of the Black Flags of Khorasan, the rallying cry for ISIS and a narrative that might provide a motive for the bombers in Boston.
Missing the clues
Right after the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as suspects, Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer interviewed Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Zelin said the video “is essentially an end-time prophecy” and is “definitely important in Al-Qaeda’s ideology.” Over the next few weeks, a number of journalists reported more details about the apocalyptic prophecy.
For example, the Boston Globe ran an op-ed by Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, who urged a different take. Saradzhyan wrote that Tamerlan had a YouTube account that showed an “affinity for militant interpretations of Islam and support for violent jihadists.” In addition, when young people embrace a doctrinaire form of a religious theology (or any ideology), they sometimes develop a hard-line and combative approach.
Fanatical forms of apocalyptic belief, however, are an important strain of thought shared by a small percentage of violence-prone religious fanatics in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Apocalyptic beliefs by practitioners of these three related Abrahamic religions take many forms—from passive to defensive to aggressive.
Researcher Mustafa E. Gurbuz suggests media should use more complex analyses of “human behavior and especially terrorism, which needs to be understood from a sociological eye.” Gurbuz warns that when journalists carelessly emphasize a terrorist’s “increasing devoutness to Islam,” it is “counterproductive” and endangers “a billion Muslims at large, who are peacefully living all around the globe.” It needs to be emphasized that Gurbuz has a good point, and these apocalyptic and aggressive views are marginal within global Muslim populations, contrary to the assertions of high-profile media pundits who are bigots.
Scholars studying social movements look at religions using a large set of analytical tools that tease out how sacred text is read, the official doctrines as well as the common practices of members, the degree of fundamentalism and its relationship to gender roles, and many other aspects. They also study how spiritual belief addresses the arc of history and what happens when prophecies are fulfilled. This latter is the study of apocalypticism, which includes struggles between good and evil and the possible end of time itself and the presence of God on Earth.
These sorts of apocalyptic beliefs are present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the percentage of religiously faithful who believe them or act based on them varies greatly. Those in any faith who take apocalyptic visions and use them to justify violence are only a fraction of the devout in that spiritual tradition. It’s not the religion, but the combination of apocalypticism, anger, and aggression—whether the justification is religious, political, or incomprehensible.
Harvard professor Jessica Stern interviewed scores of terrorists for her book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. Stern sees individual psychological factors as playing an important role. Yet she suggests that there is generally “a complex mix of psychological, ideological and sociological factors.” The single most common factor among the terrorists she studied is a sense of humiliation from some external force for which retaliation was an act of honor. This especially appeals to young men.
On the Social Movement Study Network (SMSN) website, professor Cynthia Burack of Ohio State University agrees and says terrorist attacks have “political, sociological, demographic and psychological coordinates, combinations of which contribute to the destructive outbursts.”
In 2012, professor Roger Griffin sketched out how apocalyptic aggression is behind much “religious terrorism” and singled out “Chechen terrorists as modern Zealots.” These two points were chapters in Griffin’s book Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning. The Tsarnaev family is ethnically Chechen and has relatives in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, which Islamic militants want to merge with Chechnya into an Islamic republic.
Griffin, a recognized authority on neofascism and right-wing ideology, bemoans the fact that US and British journalists routinely miss obvious clues related to apocalyptic belief and violence. Griffin’s book explores the psychological imperatives of constructing a new heroic identity by the alienated terrorist, but situates that in the context of the sociological and ideological framework in which an apocalyptic timetable makes sense.
Griffin writes about Anders Behring Breivik, a Christian religious fanatic who carried out the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks. Breivik is described as having “a sociopathic mindset replete with elements of conspiracy theory, megalomania, narcissism, apocalypticism and the urge to commit violence,” adding that this “nexus of traits” leads terrorists to “a total incapacity to feel compassion for the intended victims.”
Recovering from dubious news coverage
A month after the marathon bombing, the unified response in the Boston area was the slogan “Boston Strong,” visible on items from handmade signs and professional banners to any kind of merchandise imaginable.
In the hours following the attack, the corporate media engaged in outlandish rumor-mongering, some claiming the perpetrators were domestic right-wing militants.
Talking heads free-associated jingoistic gibberish with their “experts.”
When CNN wrongly identified pressure cooker bombs as a “signature of right-wing individuals,” right-wingers justifiably rebelled.
When the suspects’ photos were released, the mass media discussed how they “looked white.” When they were identified as Muslim immigrants, institutionalized and organized white racism swirled in a toxic stream through digital channels. Islamophobic websites were perplexed there were Muslims who looked “white.”
The Tsarnaev family’s ethnic background is from the Caucus Mountains. Chechnya is in the north with Iran and Afghanistan in the south. The Boston Marathon bombers were literally Caucasians.
Some of us who study domestic right-wing groups have been tallying the number of attacks and deaths linked to Muslims compared to our domestic racists. Terror and deaths caused by non-Muslim perpetrators in the US eclipses those by Muslims 10-1. The attacks escalated after 9/11 and the election of President Barack Obama—as did Islamophobic attacks.
Politicians, government functionaries, and right-wing Islamophobes have decided the problem is not enough government surveillance and information sharing. This ignores the fact that pre-blast reports on the Tsarnaevs were available (but buried) in the mountain of digital garbage overwhelming the local surveillance apparatus. In New Jersey, news of a white man who was arrested for carrying explosives on a train a week before the Boston bombing barely caused a ripple in the news cycle.
Meanwhile, the corporate media largely explained the dynamics of terrorism using outdated social science about psychological dysfunction or by claiming Islam was a religion of terrorism—not unlike some leading Republican candidates for president. Mostly ignored were studies showing that many young terrorists emerge from alienation by rebuilding shattered identities to become heroes avenging the humiliation of a nation, culture, or religion.
Only a tiny fraction of Muslims become terrorists. They don’t hate our freedoms. They hate our soldiers. They hate invaders. Russian brutality in Chechnya blew back to Boston via US wars in the Middle East. How we remember and treat our adversaries and enemies tells a lot about us as a nation.
In Burlington, Massachusetts, where I live, I still slip donations into jars on checkout counters for MIT security officer Sean Collier, a 2004 graduate of Wilmington High School. Our towns share a common border and the historic Ipswich River, as well as an athletic tradition as football rivals. The Ipswich flows to the sea where in the late 1600s persons suspected of being witches and agents of Satan were chased down and in some cases executed.
Searching for satanic subversion is part of the right-wing narrative for the current Presidential race. Listen to AM Talk Radio, Fox News, and deranged pundits such as Glenn Beck, and you will hear liberals, Democrats, and socialists described as being part of a global apocalyptic plot to install a New World Order under totalitarian collectivist rule. Single-payer health care is the devil’s plaything. Taxing the rich will bring Hell to earth.
Reflections from Concord Bridge
One month after the Boston Marathon bombings, I take my colleague and friend Andrew Bashi on an alternative tour of the Revolutionary War’s opening battle at Lexington, the town that borders Burlington on the west. During the drive I learn of Andrew’s heritage tracing back to Iraq and the Chaldean religious community, one of the oldest Christian civilizations in history. He was raised in Detroit, and people often wonder if he is Muslim.
Prior to visiting Concord’s North Bridge, Andrew and I attended a fundraising event a few blocks from the Boston blast site. It was for the Defending Dissent Foundation, with which we both volunteer. We met in the hearth of colonial liberty at a time of increasing government spying, use of informers, entrapment of Muslims, and targeting of animal rights and other progressive activists.
Andrew snapped a picture of the grave site of the British soldiers killed in the battle at Concord. Back then we buried enemy dead as was the civilized practice of the day.
At that same moment, outraged demonstrators were demanding the corpse of Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev not be buried in Massachusetts. Tamerlan’s body was spirited to Virginia. The burial in a private Muslim cemetery was not secret for long. The Islamophobic Virginia-based Anti-Shariah Task Force began a campaign to dig up Tamerlan’s corpse and banish it from the state. The group’s chairman told the Associated Press that Tamerlan’s burial was “an awful sneak attack on the people of Virginia,” and predicted the site would become a shrine for Islamic Jihadists.
Viewing the mass grave, Andrew and I both felt ashamed to live in a country in which the requisite qualifications for being called civilized are slowly, relentlessly, being scraped away by militarism, repression, and bigotry. We read a poem that is carved into a headstone at North Bridge, in an area with the corpses of British soldiers buried on April 19, 1775. It was put there by men who fought for our nation’s liberty from oppression; the first two lines are, “They came three thousand miles and died. To keep the past upon its throne.”
Chip Berlet sits on the BINJ advisory board and is an alt media veteran and expert on apocalypticism who has served in investigative roles from High Times to the Defending Dissent Foundation.