Where We Are and How We Got Here

Bombs went off in Boston, and moments later, this happened:

A twenty-year-old man who had been watching the Boston Marathon had his body torn into by the force of a bomb. He wasn’t alone; a hundred and seventy-six people were injured and three were killed. But he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force,” as his fellow-tenants described it to the Boston Herald, with a “phalanx” of officers and agents and two K9 units. He was the one whose belongings were carried out in paper bags as his neighbors watched; whose roommate, also a student, was questioned for five hours (“I was scared”) before coming out to say that he didn’t think his friend was someone who’d plant a bomb—that he was a nice guy who liked sports. “Let me go to school, dude,” the roommate said later in the day, covering his face with his hands and almost crying, as a Fox News producer followed him and asked him, again and again, if he was sure he hadn’t been living with a killer.

He was from Saudi Arabia. He was cleared, quickly, but not before the story was spread around that the bombing suspect was Middle Eastern and “dark-skinned”.

Then came this:

I was awake this morning when Reddit began it’s coverage of the MIT shoot out. I had a day off so decided to chill out on Ed Brayton’s regular Google+ Hangouts when people on it linked me to Reddit’s coverage of the MIT shoot out.

Then something weird happened. People indicated that these were the suspects from the Boston Marathon and reading the updates became car crash reading.

And then I noticed something “weird”. They named the suspects. Sunil Triparthi’s name came up. And it didn’t make sense to me. Saffron terror groups share the USA’s general “Islamophobia”. They LIKE Israeli Hawk Parties. They don’t like muslims. Why would they attack the USA.

So it got me thinking maybe he is a convert. So I did some research. The BBC’s website had the images of the suspects but no names. A variety of news sources began reporting Sunil Triparthi’s name.

Triparthi is a college student who has been missing for more than a month. The Facebook page his family and friends were using to try to persuade him to come home (if he can) had to be taken down under the volume of nastiness it received. The Reddit thread has since been deleted.

There was also this:

But as they strolled down Commercial Street, an angry-faced man charged toward the petite woman, his hand balled into a fist. He punched her hard in the shoulder and screamed curses inches from her face. Then he pointed at her and walked away shouting.

“He said, ‘(Expletive) you. (Expletive) you Muslims, You are terrorists, you are the ones who made the Boston explosion,’” said Abolaban, recalling the episode in a phone interview Thursday. “I was really, really completely shocked. I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized what happened. I was crying and crying.”

Abolaban, a 26-year-old physician who wears a traditional hijab, or head scarf, gripped the stroller carrying her nine-month old daughter and stood in shock. Soon, she and her friend, also pushing a baby stroller, burst into tears.

“I was so afraid he might hurt my baby,” she said.

Here, at least, the town rallied around the innocent immediately.

Finally, we discovered the identity of the bombers. First we saw pictures. “Light-skinned pictures”, “Dudebro in backward baseball cap”, said Twitter and other social media. “Look over here! Pictures! Please help identify”, said news outlets.

Then one of the bombers was killed and identified. “Caucasian, so Caucasian”, said social media. “Russian Chechen”, said the media. As someone astutuely noticed, they had gone from “dark-skinned” to being remarkably ethinically literate in a very short period of time.

“Chechen = Muslim”, they said. Reports came out that the family wasn’t particularly religious, that the younger brother was not very observant. Still, Islam was blamed for “radicalizing” the brothers. No mention, of course, was made of the many, many ways in which disaffected young white men in the U.S. (which these men have very clearly been shown to be) name and deepen that disaffection before engaging in violence.

In a nice bit of timing, Boing-Boing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker was in the right place to catch an interesting talk the day after the bombings.

When bombs explode in a crowded city street, individuals and governments naturally ask themselves, “Could we have prevented this if we had been paying better attention to people and things that were out of place?” Trouble is, that question leads to a whole cascade of other questions — covering everything from personal privacy to racism.

M. Neelika Jayawardane is associate professor of English at SUNY-Oswego. She’s giving a talk this afternoon on “If you see something, say something” and other campaigns aimed at getting average people involved in public security. I happened to be here on campus for a separate speaking engagement and thought this was something that BoingBoing readers would be interested in “sitting in” on, given the recent tragedy in Boston.

The coverage of that talk is worth reading in its entirety. Among other things, it talks about how the context of these campaigns–our post-911, suddenly insecure nation–shaped what “suspicious” means to us these days. It means things we don’t see everyday, people we don’t see everyday.

At every point in the coverage of the bombings, this has shaped the narrative presented in the media. People are challenging that narrative, but major news outlets have continued to interpret everything through that lens, that social context. They’ve also continued to be wrong and wrong in ways that cause harm.

It’s time that stops.

Where We Are and How We Got Here
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3 thoughts on “Where We Are and How We Got Here

  1. 1

    he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched

    The <i.New Yorker piece tht everybody quotes is hopelessly spun. The guy was a bona-fide suspect at the time. He had been stopped originally reportedly because of strange behavior. He was in the hospital because the police brought him there under guard. He was questioned and then a federal search warrant was obtained for his apartment.. Then he was cleared.
    All this, the implication goes, because he was “fleeing while brown!!” Racism and Islamophobia!!
    Except a) the guy’s not particularly brown. Anybody who’s ever been in downtown Boston could tell you that his skin color is about as unusual there as a Red Sox cap. And b) all first-hand reports talk about his behavior, not his appearance. Was his Saudi origin of interest to the FBI, once it was learned? Probably.
    But it all went down as legitimate police procedure.

  2. 3

    Chas: Even assuming you’re correct that the police were using some basis other than race for targeting him, there’s a LOT to be said about how the media jumped head-and-shoulders on the Saudi origin angle. The press behaved abysmally during the past week, and very few of them will cop to it now.

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