Monday, April 22, 2013


Photo credit: This image was developed by illustrator Andrew Dyson and accompanied an online article about the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that appeared at

In just a few hours, we will mark the one week “anniversary” of the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. This event rocked not only the City of Boston but the entire nation as once again we faced the reality that the United States was a target of a planned terror attack. As the days since the bombings unfolded and the manhunt for the perpetrators resulted in the identification of two primary suspects along with the dissemination of details that strongly suggest what many of us intuitively knew -- that the men were not acting alone, we have been subjected (voluntarily or involuntarily) to endless hours of news coverage with a diverse array of information bits relating to the story.

It’s been nearly 168 hours of continuous reporting (with some necessary factual blackouts for public safety reasons) and amidst the myriad of expert voices listeners have heard from terror experts, security experts, police experts, immigration commentators, Boston aficionados, 9/11 survivors, elected officials, eyewitnesses, and both the perpetrators’ and victims’ family members. Given what seems like broadly comprehensive reporting, I remain struck by one obvious missing voice: that of experts on the geopolitical context from which these terrorists emerged. No, I don’t mean the current U.S. or global political landscape or the seemingly more familiar global terror threat. I am referring to knowledge of the geopolitical context of places like Chechnya in the historic context of the U.S.S.R. and the contemporary context of a post-Soviet world. Yes, there has been some passing historical and chronological references to the history of Chechnya and neighboring countries and an immigration timeline for the brothers that is peppered with movable facts, but there has not been substantial substantive discussion of the arguably relevant critical geopolitical contexts.

This story cannot be complete or our understanding of it and the long-term threat without learning and understanding with some degree of depth and fluency the geopolitical context I identify. To begin, I offer several key introductory questions to which answers are needed in order that we as U.S. Americans can better contextualize the inexplicable occurrence and so that we can properly demand an appropriate response from our federal government both procedurally in the courts and in the realm of policy such homeland security, foreign policy (aid and relations), and yes immigration reform, too.
1. Where is Chechnya and how does this small country figure into the global picture? 2. What were the economic, social, and political realities of small nations like Chechnya prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union? 3. What are the economic, social, and political realities of sovereignties like Chechnya in this post-Soviet era? 4. What is the history of Islam, socially, politically, culturally, and religiously in these states? 5. What has been the United States government’s stance toward these states? 6. In making references to the growth of Islam in these states, what is the relevance and why is it important to distinguish between authentic Islamists versus fundamentalists versus radicals? 7. What is the immigration dynamic between these former Soviet states and the United States?
There are more questions for sure, but I will unveil those in a subsequent commentary. For now it remains clear to me that we need to start with these questions. As I arose this morning and set out to write this piece, I caught a segment of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and for the first time since the terror attack I heard a brief segment that tangentially touched upon these issues. The guest Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was invited to offer some insights on the relevance of “Russia” and the history of Islam’s growth in these regions but with the coded but clear (to me) caveat by co-host Joe Scarborough to respond “…without digging too deeply into the weeds.”  As Haas began his remarks the co-hosts’ facial expressions showed their uneasiness with the segment and reinforced my point of view that these discussions must take place and this information must be shared mainstream.

Perhaps the media is having trouble identifying resources/experts outside of policy sources such as former presidential advisers and state department officials whose input tend to be focused on/limited to policy stances so it would behoove them to look to reputable academic experts. While the experts may be limited and perhaps some already are assisting the government, there are plenty still (for example, try my alma mater Columbia University to start) who would be available to assist the media in educating (themselves and) the general public.

The missing elements in the ongoing story need to be voiced and heard. The story cannot continue to be told without answers to these questions.


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