The person providing moral leadership in the wake of the horrific Boston Marathon bombings is not a faith leader, but a funeral home director. Killed in a shootout with police after he and his younger brother allegedly set off the two bombs, Tamerlan Tsarnaev laid, unburied for six days, in the Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worchester, MA. He reveals that dead men do tell tales.
The presence of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s dead body triggered a vitriolic reaction in many Americans, that could be described as “patriolic”ism. The media reported that angry crowds flocked to the funeral home, with dozens of protesters carrying American flags and signs that read, “Bury this terrorist on US soil and we will unbury him.” (“Man Accused of Lying Seeks Release as Cemeteries Reject Tsarnaev Family,” By Katharine Q. Seelye and Jess Bidgood, The New York Times, May 6, 2013) “Bury the Garbage in the Landfill.” (“Second autopsy set as conspiracists gravitate to cause,” By Wesley Lowery, David Filipov, and Lisa Wangsness, The Boston Globe, Msy 5. Z2013) Other protesters shouted, “Send him back!” “USA!” “Just burn him and throw him in the sewer.” (“Funeral home searches for place to bury Tsarnaev,” By Wesley Lowery and Brian MacQuarrie, The Boston Globe, May 4, 2013) “He should burn in hell.” (“No one wants to bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” by Richard Weir, O’ryan Johnson, and Erin Smith, bostonherald.com, May 4, 2013)
The intensity of this “patriolic” diatribe is seen in the report of family members “retrieving the ashes of” a loved one. When they left the funeral home, “protesters, believing them to be from Tsarnaev’s family, unleashed a series of chants and expletives.” (“Family urged to settle on burial,” By Brian MacQuarrie, Milton J. Valencia, and Peter Schworm, The Boston Globe, May 7, 2013)
Political leaders helped to fuel this mindless “patriolic” display, which, in turn, evidently helped to fuel their cowardly responses. Peter Stefan, the funeral director holding Tamerlan Tsarneav’s body, disclosed that “a handful of local cemeteries rejected requests to bury” his remains. He then stated his belief that “Cambridge was legally obligated to bury Tsarneav at the municipal cemetery,” as he lived in Cambridge. “But,” as reported, “City Manager Robert W. Healy issued a statement Sunday urging the family not to apply for a Cambridge burial permit.” His reason: “The difficult and stressful efforts of the residents of the city of Cambridge to return to a peaceful life would be adversely impacted by the turmoil, protests, and widespread media presence at such an internment.” (“Cambridge won’t bury bomb suspect,” By Wesley Lowery, The Boston Globe, May 6, 2013)
As Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body continued to languish in the Worcester funeral home, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino joined part of a soon-to-be growing political chorus. A front page Boston Globe story announced his position: “Menino won’t allow burial.” His press secretary spoke for him: “ ‘It would be disrespectful to our residents to accommodate this individual,’ said Dot Joyce.” She continued, “Instead, the mayor wants Tsarnaev’s family to return the body to the suspect’s native Russia, instead of burdening American officials with trying to find a burial plot amid continuing protests and a string of rejections from cemeteries in multiple states.” (By Evan Allen, May 8, 2013)
Democratic Congressman Edward Markey, candidate for the US Senate seat vacated when John Kerry became Secretary of State, joined the chorus singing to the “Patriolic” beat. Obviously mindful of potential voters, and well aware of the political climate created, he said, “The people of Massachusetts have a right of say that they do not want that terrorist to be buried on the soil of Massachusetts.” As if the “patriolic” protesters represented all “the people of Massachusetts.” Markey’s suggestion: “I think that the body should be controlled by the federal government, and that it should be returned to the family of the terrorist for disposal.” And his Republican Senate opponent, Gabriel Gomez, “a former Navy SEAL,” evidently made sure he was on “the right side.” He reportedly “said on Twitter that Tsarnaev’s body should be buried at sea, like Osama bin Laden.” (“Family urged to settle on burial,” Ibid) Another way of saying, “Feed his body to the sharks.”
Governor Deval Patrick appeared to be the most disingenuous in distancing himself from Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body. His quoted position: “This isn’t a state or a federal issue; it’s the family’s issue . . . and the family has some options. I assume they will make a decision soon,” he continued. “I hope they do.” (Ibid)
“It’s the family’s issue.” What denial! Cambridge, the city where Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his wife and three-year-old daughter lived, did not want his body. Nor did Boston. Nor Massachusetts. Nor cemeteries in a number of other states. Nor, as reported, did Russia.
“The family’s issue?” The intense “patriolic” climate forced Katherine Russell Tsarnaev, the dead, alleged bomber’s wife, to seek refuge for herself and their child in her family’s Rhode Island home, away from the glaring intrusive eyes of cameras and potentially threatening citizens.
“It’s the family’s issue.” Tell that to the protesters who threatened, “Bury this terrorist on US soil and we will unbury him.” Tell that to the American flag wavers, who hurled expletives at grieving relatives exiting the Worcester funeral parlor with a loved one’s ashes, believing they were the Tsarnaev family.
“It’s the family’s issue.” Tell that to the Muslims living in Massachusetts and across America. A young female doctor in Malden, MA, pushing her child down the street in a stroller was reported to be “punched hard in the shoulder and cursed by a man” who ran away after saying, “’[Expletive] you. [Expletive] you Muslims, you are terrorists, you are the ones who made the Boston explosion.” Another reported incident involved “a 30-year-old Bangladeshi man . . . attacked . . . in the Bronx by a man who made anti-Muslims statements.” And a third incident involved “a pilot at Logan International Airport return[ing] an airplane to the gate because some passengers were upset that two men were speaking a foreign language on the plane, a state official said.” (“Embassies, Islamic groups fear attacks against Muslims,” By Maria Sacchetti, The Boston Globe, Apr. 19, 2013)
It’s the family’s issue.” Tell that to the Muslims, whose reality is disclosed in a front page Boston Globe story subtitled, “For area Muslims, the feeling of being besieged by scrutiny hasn’t lifted.” In the face of such a “patriolically” legitimized political climate, Muslim citizens have had to bend over backwards to try to convince other Americans that they are peace-loving. An example is Imam Ibrahim Rahim of the Yusuf Mosque in Brighton, who is quoted as telling his congregation, “Today, we insist to our neighbors that we Muslims are people of peaceful covenant. As our neighbors,” he stressed, “your blood is sacred, your lives are sacred. No one has a right to kill anyone of us for any reason.” The story was accompanied by a photograph that told a different, desperately needed story: of Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, Rev. Burns Stanfield, and Rabbi Ronnie Friedman, embracing Imam William Suhaib Webb at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury. (“Praying for peace—and understanding,” By Lisa Wangsness and Meghan E. Irons, Apr. 27, 2013)
If far more American religious leaders, and their congregations, had possessed the prophetic nerve to preach and live Imam Rabim’s words, forcefully and repeatedly, in response to the Bush administration’s pre-emptive war preparations to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, those two criminal wars may have been prevented—on ended sooner– and the related blowback violence against Americans on Boylston Street and elsewhere might not be occurring. Sadly, “the handwriting was on the wall,” as many spiritual leaders, and their people, “were found wanting,” when the Bush administration used the horrific 9/11 attacks against America as a pretext for manufacturing an imperialistically motivated global “war on terrorism” for corporate profit and power—under the guise of protecting us from “terrorists.”
Sadly, many religious leaders betray their calling and their country by remaining silent in the face of US imperialism– and many continue to remain silent in the face of the “partiolic” desecration of a dead body, that serves to divert attention from how the United States’ war of terror destroys other people’s lives and creates so-called “terrorists.” The Boston Marathon bombings reveal a chronic disease of many clergy: they are chaplains of the status quo. Many were visible and vocal and caring of victims and the country in the media-welcoming spotlight right after the terrible bombings. But they became silent and invisible when their role also called for speaking prophetic truth to power and “patriolic”ism.
It’s not “the family’s issue,” but a state and federal issue. It is a political issue that prevents Americans from daring to exercise national soul-searching in response to younger brother, Dahokhar Tsarnaev’s hospital bedside statement: that he and his brother, Tamerlan were motivated to bomb the Boston Marathon because of the United States’ invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. (See Mel King and Alberts, “The Boston-Baghdad Connection: A Theological Taboo,” Counterpunch, May 2, 2013)
It is a “federal issue,” on display in Washington, at which Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis testified about the Boston Marathon bombings before Congress’s House Homeland Security Committee. A front page Boston Globe story featured photographs of the victims, with the caption, “A poster board at Thursday’s House Homeland Security Committee hearing memorialized those killed in the bombings and the aftermath: M.I.T. police officer Sean Collier, Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi, and Krystle Campbell.” (“Lawmakers hear Davis, fault FBI on data sharing,” By Matt Viser, May 10, 2013)
What better diversionary tactic than for the federal government to keep the spotlight on the American victims of blowback violence, rather than also examine its own imperialistic foreign policy, and related drones-spearheaded global “war on terrorism,” triggering that violence. Our government’s aim is to divert everyone’s attention from the alleged Marathon bombers’ stated motivation—repeated, again, by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in his written note, found in the boat in which he was captured. CBS News broke the story: “Basically, the note says . . . the bombings were retribution for the US crimes against Muslims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and that the victims of the Boston bombing were ‘collateral damage,’ the same way innocent victims have been collateral damage in US wars around the world,’ said CBS News reporter, John Miller, who is a former spokesman for the FBI.” (“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev left note in boat explaining motives, CBS report says,” Reuters in Washington, guardian.co.uk, May 16, 2013 ) Miller also said, on “CBS This Morning,” “the note will be a significant piece of evidence in any trial—it is ‘certainly admissible’ and paints a clear picture of the brothers’ motive [italics added], ‘consistent with what he told investigators while he was in custody.’” (“Boston bombings suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev left note in boat he hid in, sources say,” www.cbsnews.com, May 16, 2013)
The greatest threat to American imperialism is empathy. God—and human impulse—forbid that enough American citizens become aware of and empathize with individual victims among the countless number of people, in various countries, suffering from violence inflicted by our own government, in our name. Here is where America’s guardian mainstream media come in: continuing daily doses of stories on the suffering of Boston Marathon bombing victims by The Boston Globe, for example, allow citizens to remain oblivious to the victims of America’s imperialistic foreign policy, and not respond with outrage at our government’s own complicity in putting our citizens at risk of blowback violence.
This commentary in no way is meant to demean or dismiss the terrible loss and injury suffered by the Boston Marathon bombing victims, nor the horrific act or accountability of the Tsarnaev brothers. It is not about minimizing their horrible crime, but about also directing our anger and protest against our government for its murderous military, political and economic domination of other countries, that creates millions of victims and the desire for revenge and the ensuing retaliatory blowback violence against us Americans. Only forceful massive moral protest will change our government’s imperialistic policies.
“This is not a state or federal issue. It’s the family’s issue.” Boston Globe columnist Derrick L. Jackson saw through the political cowardice created by the “patriolic”ism. In a piece called, “The decency to bury a body,” he wrote, “Not one major political figure in Massachusetts had the guts to say the obvious as Tsarnaev lay in suspended non-animation at a funeral home in Worcester.” Jackson included Governor Patrick in that list, stating, “No spine was spotted in higher offices. Governor Deval Patrick verbally put up his index fingers in a cross to scare away curses, saying, ‘This isn’t a state or federal issue.’” Jackson then made the point: “Rather than lead, our most powerful politicians catered to the hysteria of those who said they would leave Massachusetts if Tsarnaev was buried here; or they would dig up the body if it was buried anywhere in the United States . . . a hysteria,” he continued, “that was loud enough to paralyze politicians is a sobering reminder of how otherwise understandable post traumatic reaction can take a sour self-absorbed turn. At that point we have to challenge our feelings.” (May 11, 2013)
After Tamerlan Tsarneav’s body was far removed from Massachusetts, a Boston Globe editorial lauded the Worcester funeral director, who, in the face of daily “patriolic” protests, continued to provide a human response: “I am burying a dead body. Everyone who is dead deserves to be buried.” (“Funeral home searches for place to bury Tsarnaev,” Ibid) In lauding Peter Stefan, the editorial stated, “. . . by resisting understandable but nonetheless small-minded pressure from politicians and protesters—some of them demanding that Tsarnaev’s body be ‘fed to the sharks’—Stefan upheld the decency of the Commonwealth.” The editorial continued, “It’s a mark of civilized people to treat dead bodies, even outcasts and adversaries, with dignity. At a time when others succumbed to hysteria, Stefan held firm. (“Stefan: Doing his job with decency,” May 10, 2013) These editorial words spoke truth to the “patriolic”ism. They would have been even more instructive if written while Tsarneav’s body lay in Worcester.
It took a funeral director, Peter Stefan, to provide moral leadership. As did 40 members of a local interfaith group, who, as reported, showed up at the funeral home “to pray and ask for tolerance.” Among them was Sister Rena Mae Gagnon, a 77-year-old Little Franciscans of Mary nun, who “held a sign that read, ‘Burying the dead is a work of mercy.’” She was also quoted: “We’re Christians. We’re not to act that way.” (“Menino won’t allow burial,” By Evan Allen and Brian MacQuarrie, The Boston Globe, May 8, 2013)
There was “mercy” in Virginia, where, after a private ceremony, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body was buried, in an unmarked grave in a small rural Muslim cemetery. Bukhari Abdel-Alim, Vice president of Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia that owns the cemetery, was quoted,: “The bigger burden on us was putting the brother in the ground, regardless of his actions.” Abdel Alim’s said, “The only regret that I would have is that he wasn’t buried sooner. . . . Whether he was Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, when you’re dead, you need to be buried.” Also reported, “’I thank the Lord Allah, that I was part of the brother being buried there,’ said, Abdel-Alim, an African American who converted to Islam about 45 years ago.” (“An Islamic cemetery in rural Virginia accepts Tsarnaev’s body, but officials vow a review,” By Wesley Lowery and Matt Viser, The Boston Globe, May 11, 2013; “Burial divides Virginia residents,” By Brian MacQuarrie, The Boston Globe, May 12, 2013)
Back in Massachusetts, Bukhari Abdel-Alim’s words are echoed by a white funeral director: “’I don’t leave things undone,’ [Peter] Stefan said early Friday evening. . . . I follow it to conclusion, and I’d do it again tomorrow if someone calls me. Then he said, “For Christ’s sake (italics added), character has to be consistent.” (“An Islamic cemetery in rural Virginia accepts Tsarnaev’s body, but officials vow a review,” Ibid) Would that more Christian leaders swore like that to power about “beat[ing] their swords into plowshares.”
Returning to Virginia, mental health counselor and theology degree holder Martha Mullen also showed mercy and humanity. Upset by the morality play in Massachusetts, that “portrayed America at its worst,” she helped to facilitate the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body in that small cemetery in rural Virginia. She is also quoted as saying that “what compelled her to assist in the burial” was Jesus’ words, “’Jesus says [to] love our enemies. . . . So I was sitting in Starbucks and thought, ‘Maybe I’m the one person who needs to do something.’” She did, by discovering the availability of the Muslim cemetery, and then providing that information to the Worcester police, who shared it with funeral director Peter Stefan. (“An Islamic cemetery in rural Virginia accepts Tsarnaev’s body, but officials vow a review,” Ibid)
“Maybe I’m the one person who needs to do something.” What a powerful example Martha Muller provides for us Americans. She was not a religious leader. Nor was the Good Samaritan. She reveals the power of individuals when, individually or collectively, they say No! to “patriolic”ism, and Yes! to Imam Rahim’s words, “No one has the right to kill anyone of us for any reason.”
Martha Mullen’s action was merciful. However, the question faith leaders– and people of faith in general– need to raise goes a step beyond the challenge of loving our enemies. The question is: why are they our enemies?
Dead men do tell tales. About vitriolic patriotism, the cowardice of politicians, the silence of clergy and their congregations, and the liberals/progressives/rightists acceptance of the morally repugnant dehumanization of a dead body, that took center stage after the Boston Marathon bombings—or perhaps swept under the rug, to be repeated when the status-quo-guarding media spotlight focuses on the younger Tsarnaev brother in the future.
Retired United Methodist minister and poet Theodore Lockhart speaks to the “patriolic”ism, and answers the critical question, why are they our enemies?, in two related poems called “A Dignified Burial” and “With Drones We Terrorize.”
“Everybody deserves a dignified burial service”
The funeral director said,
“No matter the circumstances of his or her death.”
Ah, but they would have none of it.
The protesters, now the righteous guardians of the homeland
burial grounds, waging war against burying a dead terrorist, not risking
Another untimely resurrection.
“In all of Massachusetts,” he lamented,
“My problem is to find a grave site.
A lot of people don’t want to do it.
They don’t want to be involved in this.
Some are even ticked off with my decision to even handle the service.
I keep bringing up the point of Lee Harvey Oswald,
Timothy McVeigh or Ted Bundy.
Somebody had to do those, too.”
Ah, but they would have none of it.
Those were red-blooded White American boys,
A little off here and there, but White American boys
Born and raised right here in the homeland.
They were not Muslim foreigners!
and we want no Muslim terrorist buried in American soil!
They do not deserve it.
We are the new American Exceptionalists
We do as we want here and around the world.
But in unhurried time, it came to pass
That a latter-day daughter of Joseph of Arimathea
Moved by the loud denials of dignity for burying the dead,
Now shrouded in fashionable clothing labeled terrorist,
Did the honorable, compassionate thing:
She asked the undertaker for the body,
To be buried in a secret, un-molesting place-
from the watching eyes of righteousness
gone wild. (tl, May 5-12, 2013)
Can we terrorize the world
Hoping to kill the enemy
His children, her husband, and the innocents standing by?
Can we do this
Hoping to avoid the boomer-rang blow of ugliness
Riding hard and relentless as evil in vengeful array?
(tl, May 4, 2013)
Appreciation is expressed to Rev. Theodore Lockhart for permission to cite his poems. His recently published book, BEFORE BLACKNESS, LYING AFTER TRUTH, IN RABBITUDE & OTHER POEMS, is available on Amazon.com.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics religion and pastoral care. His Book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, is available on Amazon.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.