It’s increasingly likely that it will be months if not years before we know with any degree of certainty who was responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. Unfortunately, that means politicized speculation will have an opportunity to run wild. We are already seeing this with the immediate focus of conservative media on dubious reports of suspects from Islamic countries (particularly the “Saudi National” who turned out to be a witness, not a suspect). And even though intelligence sources have made it clear there’s no particular reason to believe the bombings were directed from outside the country or involved people here illegally, nativist champion Rep. Steve King is already seizing on the atrocity as yet another excuse for slowing down immigration reform legislation.

More generally, it’s obvious that a lot of conservatives are actively hoping the culprits look like their favorite villains–the perpetrators of 9/11, to be precise–while more than a few liberals (less vocally) would be relieved if the bombs were planted by some Timothy McVeigh type–a white extremist with ties to the Militia Movement or other Second Amendment ultras who take seriously the common wingnut claim that Manchin-Toomey would hurl the country straight down the road to a totalitarian nightmare.

One lefty commentator, David Sirota, has actually gone public at Salon with this wish, though not on grounds that it would then be possible to blame wingnuts, but precisely because a white American suspect would inevitably be assumed to be acting alone:

If recent history is any guide, if the bomber ends up being a white anti-government extremist, white privilege will likely mean the attack is portrayed as just an isolated incident — one that has no bearing on any larger policy debates. Put another way, white privilege will work to not only insulate whites from collective blame, but also to insulate the political debate from any fallout from the attack.

Whether Sirota is right or not, there is little question that pinning responsibility–or even strongly suspected responsibility–on someone from the Islamic Greater Middle East would create the kind of broad-brush blame game in which a lot of innocents get threatened or smeared. We know this because it’s what happened after 9/11 (remember the many acts of violence against turbaned Sikhs who were neither Muslims nor Arabs?).

At Slate, David Weigel reports attending an Arab-American event last night in which veteran international correspondent Christiane Amanpour articulated the fear of an indiscriminate backlash:

In conversation, before dinner, I noticed something of a pattern to conversation. When I met someone whose work dipped into politics or security, I’d bring up Boston, and I’d hear “this is between us” or “off the record.” Even after an opening moment of silence for those hurt in “Boston, as well as in the Middle East,” Arab-Americans and Arabs visiting from the Middle East were careful not to talk about a worry that the culprit in Boston might turn out to look like them.

Lucky enough, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour said it for them. She was there to accept the first Anthony Shadid award for journalism (other awards went to Ralph Nader and Casey Kasem), and she promised that her remarks would honor him, but started with the “elephant in the room.” That would be the Boston Marathon bombing.
“How many of us feel this burden of association and hope beyond hope that this doesn’t turn out to be what it might be?” said Amanpour. “No conclusions yet.” She read from a New York Times essay published that day by Haider Javed Warraich, a medical resident in Boston who fretted that he didn’t run into the action because “I look like Hollywood’s favorite post-cold-war movie villain.” (He had a point. The infamous “Saudi National,” who was briefly fingered by the New York Post as a terror suspect, appears to have been a student running from the chaos like everybody else.)

“There are no conclusions,” said Amanpour. “Is it international? Is it domestic? But like all of you — I’m not Pakistani, and I’m not Arab, but I am part Iranian. And I do understand the burden of association. And I know when we know who did this, we will all unite in strong condemnation.”

Even more broadly, Middle Eastern responsibility for the bombings, however vague, could have a real effect on public policy, as a significant portion of the conservative movement, aggrieved by the general lack of public interest in an eternal Global War On Terrorism, clearly intends.

In all the endless analysis of why America went to war with Iraq, you rarely hear anyone isolate the crude reality of public opinion that the Bush administration relied on even more than lies about WMD: some Arabs killed a lot of Americans on 9/11, so America needed to kill a lot of Arabs (Which Arabs? Who cares?) in retribution.

The limited number of deaths in Boston and the recent memory of the folly of the Iraq War make that sort of reaction unlikely. But the tendency to look for those who “look like villains” hasn’t gone away. And Sirota’s definitely right about one thing: if the villain is an American who looks like a majority of other Americans, it will be much easier for a majority of Americans to discern he’s not like them at all.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.