Boston College Expert: Cultural Impact of Marathon Bombing Trial
Sienkiewicz is an assistant professor of communication and international studies. He teaches courses in global media cultures and media theory. His research focuses on Middle Eastern media and American foreign policy, as well as portrayals of race and religion on the American screen. In 2013, he was in Afghanistan and wrote an article for The Atlantic on a radio station struggling to survive as NATO troops leave the country. Sienkeiwicz has also spent considerable time living in and researching the Palestinian territories. He has written articles for The International Journal of Cultural Studies, Popular Communication, The Journal of Film and Video, The Velvet Light Trap and The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. He is the co-editor of the book, Saturday Night Live and American Culture (Indiana University Press, 2013). Sienkiewicz is also an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and screenwriter. His most recent film, “Live From Bethlehem,” was released by the Media Education Foundation in September 2009 and has been screened worldwide.
“First, it's important to understand that the police and government invited the public to take part in this case in unprecedented ways from the very start. During the manhunt, the authorities asked the citizenry to play an active role, with everyday people spending hours analyzing video images and even submitting their own pieces of digital evidence," says Boston College Assistant Professor of Communications and International Studies Matt Sienkiewicz, Ph.D. "There was alot of speculation in online forums such as Reddit about the case. Much of it was wrong, but all of it was at least tacitly sanctioned by the police. Then, during that terrifying Friday after the bombing, we were all asked to stay inside and do our part both by clearing the streets and watching events unfold on TV and online. There is a well-earned feeling of communal ownership to this trial, not just because it was an attack on a crucial aspect of Boston's culture, but also because of the role citizens, via media, were asked to play in the judicial process."
Sienkiewicz noted that the Boston community includes both those who are concentrating on the victims of the tragedy as well as individuals with opinions outside the mainstream: "You’re certainly going to see enormous crowds, with most people using this as an opportunity to bring attention to the victims and the tragedy that took place. But you will also see attempts to connect the case to issues that go beyond the bombing, with some people using the trial as a way to air their concerns about America, discrimination, and the social justice system. In addition to those people who truly believe in the innocence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, there will be many who see publicly defending him as an opportunity to bring attention to causes loosely related to the actual bombing."
Sienkiewicz says while the trial will bring a sense of healing and the closing of an ugly chapter in Boston’s history, it will also tie into other current elements in American culture.
“The story touches so many nerves in today's political environment. It's about immigration, it's about Islam, it's about terrorism, it's about when and how the police should fire their weapons. It's really a remarkable mixture of issues that stir up emotional, political responses in the U.S. today,” says Sienkiewicz, an expert on global media cultures. “It also ties into conspiracy theories, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in today's American and global political debates. We’ve seen over the past decade, perhaps even longer, the legitimization of conspiracy theories into American politics, media, and culture. The most famous examples are the 9/11 truther movement, the Obama ‘birther’ conspiracy, and conspiracies around Benghazi. Such things have always been around, but now they’ve become legitimatized political tools, with elected members of government referring to them. And, as absurd as it may seem, this environment helps give credence to the conspiracy theories that are built around the Tsarnaev case – there are people who want to argue this was a false flag operation, that it was something the United States put on in order to make Muslims look bad and other things that are hard to believe. It's ridiculous, but our political climate features some other, similarly implausible theories that some people take seriously.”
While the trial may be a spectacle featuring all the drama of a courtroom thriller, Sienkiewicz says there are also two aspects of cultural resonance to consider.
"For one, this is the opportunity to move past this terrible moment in Boston’s history, to look back and maybe end the mourning period to a certain extent. That’s a pro-social aspect the trial can have, and it's good we can collectively experience a sense of justice.
“The second side will be seen in those people who use the trial as an opportunity to promote other agendas, some of which will appear tangential to the bombing. Yes, there are people who are concerned with the actual treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But there will also be people who use this high profile moment to critique our justice system. There are people who, with reason, are upset and angry about the way America has related to the Muslim world over the past decades, and this case may, for some, become an opportunity to protest that. There’s alot of symbolism built into this case and you’re going to see people taking sides that might seem impossible given the evidence against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. You’re going to see people using the trial as an opportunity to address these bigger concerns and the media is going to pick up on that.”
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