Uncle Ruslan was worked up.
“They put that shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity!” he shouted, in an impromptu, no-megaphone-required news conference outside his Montgomery Village home last week. He was denouncing his nephews, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who are accused of killing three people and injuring more than 200 others at the Boston Marathon.
His outrage and embarrassment were shared by Chechen immigrants all over the United States. All it takes is one — in this case two — malevolent knuckleheads to completely besmirch the reputation of a small ethnic community struggling to belong, to blend in, to be heard in the United States.
The Washington region is home to just about every ethnic minority that Americans have never heard of: Chechens, Uighurs, Eritreans, Kazakhs, Albanians, Estonians, Guyanese, the list goes on. But even here, in our multicultural melting pot, people have only the haziest grasp of the world’s political and cultural geography.
I know. I’ve had to explain my Czech roots my whole life.
“Czechoslo-what?” people ask. “Is that, like, Russia?”
We have cultural nights at the library, film fests, accordion concerts at the community center, cabbage and goat potlucks galore, all in an attempt to explain ourselves, share our passions and pungent food and introduce ourselves to our new neighbors.
Then something ugly happens, and a complete troglodyte becomes the face of some small ethnic group. (See: Borat, Kazakhstan.)
Most Americans have no idea what or where Chechnya is.
The revelation that the Boston bombing suspects were immigrants from Chechnya was a big, fat “Huh?” across much of our country.
Though Muslim separatists from Chechnya have been in a bitter fight for independence from Russia for years (does the ghastly 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis or the violent 2002 siege of a Moscow theater ring any bells?), the name drew blank stares all over America last week. And some epic social media blunders.
In fact, “Czechoslovakia” (which no longer exists) began trending on Google when the Boston Marathon suspects were identified as Chechens.
A Tweeter aptly handled “Sloth” had to check with his fellow morons to be sure:
“So the guys that bombed Boston r from the Czech Republic?”
But apparently, the confusion isn’t limited to Americans.
“Dont get why people are stressing about the #LondonMarathon, what happened in Boston was a Czech/American targeting americans, we’ll be fine,” tweeted Ollie Williams.
Czechs everywhere did a collective face palm.
“Chechen republic (Chechnya) is not Czech Republic! Stop it, we are no terrorists, we just drink beer :( #boston,” tweeted Eliska K.
Come on, dudes. We are the country that gave Frank Zappa a Cabinet position after our sweet, little Velvet Revolution.
It got so bad that the Czech ambassador to the United States put out a statement explaining the thousand or so miles that separate the two places.
“As more information on the origin of the alleged perpetrators is coming to light, I am concerned to note in the social media a most unfortunate misunderstanding in this respect,” wrote Petr Gandalovic. “The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities — the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.”
Really, people. We Czechs have just barely recovered from those Dan Aykroyd/Steve Martin “Wild and Crazy Guys” days. It could take decades to shake a terrorist association.
Meanwhile, we all hope that there are, in fact, no Czech terrorists out there to ruin our undefined reputation.
That is the fear of every outsider looking to blend in. And here in the District, probably one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse areas, it is painful to watch each time it happens.
When a group of 17 Uighurs, a persecuted Muslim minority in China, were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, the local Uighur community here in Washington — the largest in America— was active in both championing their release and explaining Uighurs to the world.
Few people had ever heard about their traditions and costumes and dances. I bet most Washingtonians never made it to their springtime Noruz celebration at George Mason University, nor tried Uighur lamb dumplings. Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress, said it on courthouse steps, in editorials and to any journalist who would listen: “Uighurs are not terrorists.”
It reminded me of the painful self-flagellation of the Korean community after Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people in Virginia Tech six years ago. The Post wrote a story about Korean Americans across the country approaching police stations, apologizing.
Washington state Sen. Paull Shin gave an emotional apology on behalf of Cho, and Lee Tae Shik, South Korean ambassador to Washington, said the Korean American community needed to “repent” and suggested a 32-day fast, one day for each victim, to prove that Koreans were a “worthwhile ethnic minority in America.”
No, it’s not easy to see one of your own do such evil.
And that’s why we understood Uncle Ruslan Tsarni’s anger as he made his emotional speech.
“I respect this country. I love this country,” Uncle Ruslan said. “This country, which gives chance to everybody else to be treated as a human being, just to be a human being.”
And that’s why we all agreed with his apt description of his nephews. Not Chechens, not Muslims, not Chechen Americans, but simply a universal word that everyone understands: “losers.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.