25 April 2013

Did Russophobia cost lives in Boston?

The inevitable finger pointing has begun now that we've learned that authorities were aware of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's alleged consorting with Chechen terrorists during his occasional visits to Russia. The Russian FSB reportedly communicated with both the FBI and CIA during 2011, calling each agency's attention to Tsarnaev's associations with jihadists. The elder brother of the Boston Marathon bombing team was added to a U.S. watch list and was interviewed by the FBI, but that agency determined after six months that he had no ties with terrorists. By the time Tamerlan traveled to Russia last year, the fact that the FBI had closed its file made his movements appear less suspicious to the CIA. As well, although his name was on a watch list at the time he flew to Russia, it wasn't flagged at the time because the airline spelled his name wrong on its passenger list. All of this will raise questions about what one needs to know about a person before he can be deemed a threat and dealt with accordingly. But since Republicans will certainly draw conclusions about the Obama administration's incompetence (or worse) in assessing threats, let's look at the story from another angle. Second-guessers now wish we had acted more thoroughly and preemptively on warnings about Tsarnaev from Russia. But wouldn't that require more faith in Russia than Americans normally show? When Americans contemplate the conflicts in Chechnya and the Caucasus region in general they may have a hard time deciding whom to root for. Because we're inclined to think of Russians as authoritarian bullies, there's a temptation -- not without some legitimacy -- to look upon their Chechen antagonists as freedom fighters a la the Afghan mujaheddin of the innocent 1980s. When Russia reports terrorist attacks against their country by Chechens, there's a "truther" element here motivated by fear and suspicion of Vladimir Putin to at least take seriously the possibility that all such attacks are "false flag" or "inside jobs" perpetrated to justify further expansions of Putin's power. In American governing circles, there's also a stubborn neocon reluctance to concede Russia any sphere of influence it its "near abroad." Given that bias, some Americans may respond to Russian complaints about terrorism, and Russian warnings about terrorists, with a "blame Russia first" attitude. Russians are bad guys, from this perspective, and they reap what they sow. So maybe the Americans thought that the Russians were concerned only with Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a potential threat to Russia, not to the U.S. Russophobia is consistent and nonpartisan in modern America, generations of anti-communist propaganda only building on an older perception of Russia as a dysfunctional authoritarian culture that could only be a force for bad in the wider world. How seriously does the U.S. government take Russian warnings about terrorism? It seems like some appropriate steps were taken on the warnings about Tsarnaev, but if you believe that enough wasn't done, on the retroactive assumption that you had to be able to tell he would pull off a terrorist bombing, why not look into all the possible reasons why enough wasn't done? Did our attitude toward Russia color our attitude toward Chechens and our apparently incorrect assessment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev? I don't have that strong a hunch, but if our new attention to Chechnya inspires some reconsideration of Russia's role in the region and in our own geopolitical imagination the inquiries to come may yet prove worthwhile.

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