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With rush to label bombing suspects, a dreadful sense of deja vu

When CNN described the Boston Marathon bombing suspects as “dark-skinned,” and not much more, many Americans held tight to their ethnicities, nationalities and religions, hoping the people associated with the horrific crimes could not be associated with them.

I saw tweets from black people, already bracing themselves, asking why it had to be one of their own. I thought of the many shades Latinos come in, “dark” being one of them, and hoped we wouldn’t hear one of our surnames when authorities caught up to the suspects.

When the men were finally revealed as Russian immigrants, I was too distracted with other feelings to get angry about the whole “dark-skinned” description. A part of me felt thankful they weren’t of Middle-Eastern descent; that community has suffered enough misdirected hate since 9/11. Another part of me felt a sense of relief that the anti-immigrant speech sure to surface wouldn’t be focused on Mexicans for once.

They’re selfish thoughts, but also protective thoughts, and there isn’t an instinct to protect something without a threat lurking — like a terrorist. When suspects in a crime this heinous are not American-born or are people of color, there’s an eagerness to blame, not just the suspects, but everyone who looks like them, worships with them, hails from the same country as them.

There’s simply too much anger to reserve it for just one or two people. Or so our illogical reasoning goes.

That’s why the suspects’ uncle Ruslan Tsarni so eloquently said in front of a herd of reporters, referring to his then on-the-run nephew Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, “He put a shame on this family. He put a shame on the entire Chechnyan ethnicity.”

Tsarni knows what’s coming.

In the month after the 9/11 attacks, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee received more than 700 reports of hate crimes. While there were fewer casualties in Boston, the intentions and tone sure felt familiar. The terror incited at a sporting event as iconic as the Boston Marathon, and on the streets of the same city several days later, had to inspire a tinge of déjà vu — among both rational and irrational Americans.

The latter get to double-dip their misdirected hate with the Boston bombers, who don’t just offer up their Chechnyan ethnicity as a target, but the Muslim faith they’ve claimed, too.

Aslam Abdullah, director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, is already preparing. He dedicated his Friday afternoon sermon to the perils imposed on Muslims when acts of violence are committed under the guise of their faith.

“We Muslims have a duty to confront these ideas and people who exploit and misuse our religion, but we also have no control over any individuals,” says Abdullah. “We are still the ones who face the consequences and that is the dilemma.”

That’s because when suspects have any identifying factors that make them different from the majority, the focus becomes just as much about those identifiers as the crime itself.

Before the suspects’ faith became public, Abdullah heard the “dark-skinned” description on CNN along with more than a million others and prepared for the worst. “We were fearful because many of us are dark-skinned,” he says, noting that President Obama is, too. “It was a stereotypical statement.”

But when one convenient label gets disproved, another emerges. The suspects in Boston were both far from dark-skinned.

Now they’re known as Muslims and immigrants. Which label will stick? The one the misguided public decides they have it out for more. If only they equally hated labels like “criminal,” “bomber” and “terrorist.”

Contact Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

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