Too much Internet and not enough good judgment

May 3, 2013 

As police investigators peel away the layers of the Boston Marathon bombing, there are two aspects of this unfolding story to which I want to react: the mindset of the alleged bombers and the role of the Internet in shaping it. Important news about both was contained in a single Washington Post article Tuesday.

“Dzhokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev ... do not appear to have been directed by a foreign terrorist organization. Rather, the officials said, the evidence so far suggests they were ‘self-radicalized’ through Internet sites and U.S. actions in the Muslim world. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has specifically cited the U.S. war in Iraq, which ended in December 2011 with the removal of the last American forces, and the war in Afghanistan,” the Post reported.

This is a popular meme among radical Muslim groups, and, to be sure, some Muslim youths were deeply angered by the U.S. interventions in the Middle East. The brothers Tsarnaev may have been among them.

But what in God’s name does that have to do with planting a bomb at the Boston Marathon and blowing up innocent people? It is amazing to me how we’ve come to accept this non sequitur and how easily we’ve allowed radical Muslim groups and their apologists to get away with it.

A simple question: If you were upset with U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, why didn’t you go out and build a school in Afghanistan to strengthen that community or get an advanced degree to strengthen yourself or become a math teacher in the Muslim world to help its people be less vulnerable to foreign powers? Dzhokhar claims the Tsarnaev brothers were so upset by something America did in a third country that they just had to go to Boylston Street and blow up people who had nothing to do with it (some of whom could have been Muslims), and too often we just nod our heads rather than asking: What kind of sick madness is this?

It’s a double non sequitur when it comes from Muslim youths who lived and studied in America, where, if you’re upset about something, you have many ways to express your opposition and have an impact – from organizing demonstrations to publishing articles to running for office.

Moreover, some 70,000 people, most of them Muslims, have been killed by other Muslims in the Syrian civil war, which the U.S. had nothing to do with – although many Muslims are now begging us to intervene to stop it. And every week innocent Muslims are blown up by Muslim suicide bombers in Pakistan and Iraq – every week. Yet this does not appear to have moved the brothers Tsarnaev one iota.

Why is that? We surely must not tar all of Islam in this. Having lived in the Muslim world, I know how unfair that would be. But we must ask a question only Muslims can answer: What is going on in your community that a critical number of your youth believes that every U.S. military action in the Middle East is intolerable and justifies a violent response, and everything Muslim extremists do to other Muslims is ignorable and calls for mostly silence?

As for the role that websites apparently played in the “self-radicalization” of the two Chechen brothers, it is yet another reminder that the Internet is a digital river that carries incredible sources of wisdom and hate along the same current. It’s all there together. And our kids and citizens usually interact with this flow nakedly, with no supervision.

So more people are more directly exposed to more raw information and opinion every day from everywhere. As such, it is more important than ever that we build the internal software, the internal filters, into every citizen to sift out fact from fiction in this electronic torrent, which offers so much information that has never been touched by an editor, a censor or a libel lawyer.

And that’s why the faster, more accessible and ultramodern the Internet becomes, the more all the old-fashioned stuff matters: good judgment, respect for others who are different and basic values of right and wrong. Those you can’t download. They have to be uploaded, the old-fashioned way, by parents around the dinner table, by caring but demanding teachers at school and by responsible spiritual leaders in a church, synagogue, temple or mosque.

Somewhere, somehow, that did not happen, or stopped happening, with the brothers Tsarnaev.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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