Falsely Accused in Boston: 3 Examples and What They Should Teach Us

Innocent Muslim Americans and those mistaken for them are particularly vulnerable in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
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What is it like to be a Muslim, or a person frequently mistaken for a Muslim, in the aftermath of an apparent terrorist attack? Americans who don't fit that description can't really know for sure, but three news items from the last few days show that knee-jerk prejudice is inexcusably common. If your ethnic group were treated this way, you'd be walking around paranoid and anxious.

Innocent victim number one is a 20-year-old Saudi who is studying in the Boston area. He was watching the marathon when the force of the bomb blast tore into him. Amy Davidson tells his story:

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.

Why the search, the interrogation, the dogs, the bomb squad, and the injured man's name tweeted out, attached to the word "suspect"? After the bombs went off, people were running in every direction -- so was the young man. Many, like him, were hurt badly; many of them were saved by the unflinching kindness of strangers, who carried them or stopped the bleeding with their own hands and improvised tourniquets. "Exhausted runners who kept running to the nearest hospital to give blood," President Obama said. "They helped one another, consoled one another," Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, said. In the midst of that, according to a CBS News report, a bystander saw the young man running, badly hurt, rushed to him, and then "tackled" him, bringing him down. People thought he looked suspicious.

Innocent victim number two, a 17-year-old high-school student whose name I'll withhold, had his image plastered across the front page of The New York Post, a newspaper also involved in spreading the story of the Saudi youth. Here is the effect of the tabloid's irresponsible journalism:

The family of a Revere high-school student whose photograph appeared in the New York Post indicating a link to the attacks at the Boston Marathon said they were being hounded and were afraid to leave their home. The front page of Thursday's New York Post featured a photo of [name withheld], 17, and another young man watching the marathon before the blasts with the headline: "Bag men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon." The FBI later released photos of two suspects in Monday's bombings, neither of whom were [name withheld]. [Name withheld], a runner for his high school track team, told the Associated Press Thursday that he is afraid to go outside, fearing people will blame him for Monday's bombings. The AP ­reported that [name withheld] is a ­Moroccan native and went to authorities, anxious to clear his name.The teenager later told ABC News that when he saw the Post's front page, "It's the worst feeling that I can possibly feel. . . . I'm only 17." Outside the family's apartment building on Thursday, a man who indicated he was ­[name withheld's] father, but declined to give his name, told a Globe reporter and other members of the press in broken English that reporters had been hounding his family all day Thursday and they had been afraid to leave. 

That brings us to innocent victim number three: all dark-skinned Bostonians. Earlier this week, CNN falsely reported that an arrest had been made in the Boston marathon bomber case, adding that the suspect was "dark-skinned." As it turned out, there hadn't been any arrest. Later that evening, MSNBC host Chris Hayes laid into the cable network for its coverage:
 

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Forget ... that CNN got wrong the information they said they had. Explain to me precisely what news value exists in the adjective "dark-skinned." What exactly that's newsworthy is communicated in that phrase? A dark-skinned individual could be my swarthier Italian American relatives, or the Ethiopian who won the Boston marathon before it was bombed on Monday, and everyone in between. No, that's not the purpose of that phrase. That phrase is not there to convey journalistic information. What "dark-skinned" actually conveys with a wink and a nod is, 'Aha, all you folks who thought it was a bad Muslim who did this, you nailed it. And if you had al Qaeda in your own private betting pool you were right.' Let's be honest, that is the subtext that suffuses all of this. That is what our collective societal id is pushing us towards. But our job, our job in the media is not to flatter those knee-jerk presumptions for the sake of momentary titillation. It's to wrestle that id to the ground and get the facts right.

I think Hayes is correct about the purpose of that phrase, though admittedly neither of us can prove it. In any case, it would be enlightening to hear CNN explain why it found that descriptor relevant.

In light of these incidents, it's worth taking a close look at Jonathan Tobin's work at Commentary. "The need for the media to behave responsibly is greater than ever," he writes. That's the high point of his piece.

Here's the low point:

...some are beginning the process of spinning the possible scenarios already. An example of that came in an article published last night in Salon by David Sirota, in which he expresses the hope that "the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American." The conceit of this inflammatory piece is that a white American terrorist would be treated as a "lone wolf" whose actions would have no implications on policy or society while a Muslim bomber would be thought of as an existential threat to the country.

The point of this seems to be to claim that an Islamist bomber would set off another backlash against Muslim-Americans such as the one that is alleged to have occurred after 9/11. But Sirota is wrong both about that mythical backlash and about the way white bombers such as Timothy McVeigh are interpreted. The reason why 9/11 was treated as an existential threat to America is that it was. The al-Qaeda campaign against the West, which included previous deadly attacks on the World Trade Center, U.S. embassies and naval ships, was part of a war that most Americans didn't notice until 3,000 of their fellow citizens were slaughtered on U.S. soil.

But contrary to Sirota, this didn't lead to a backlash of persecution against Muslims. From President Bush on down, the U.S. government went out of its way to combat prejudice and, unlike what has been the case in virtually every other war that was forced on America, negative images of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture were virtually unknown in the years that followed. Far from jumping on Muslims, the universal impulse after every homegrown Islamist act of terror, such as the mass shooting at Fort Hood, was to downplay the source of the crime and to pretend that it was unconnected to a particular interpretation of Islam. Sirota is also wrong about his "lone wolf" thesis. The Oklahoma City bombing was not treated as the act of an individual but was widely imputed to conservatives in general, with Rush Limbaugh being unfairly smeared as somehow inspiring violent extremists in a transparent attempt by liberals to exploit that tragedy to undermine their opponents.

This is the sort of analysis that's taken seriously at Commentary. Tobin doesn't acknowledge the pervasive suspicion born by all Muslims since 9/11; he doesn't mention that America's largest city began a spy campaign that ethnically profiled innocent Muslims for more than a decade; he doesn't mention the string of incidents targeting mosques; or the national politicians who urged that New York Muslims be forbidden from building a community center in lower Manhattan; he doesn't mention the Gallup survey in which 40 percent of Americans admitted feeling prejudice toward Muslims; or the survey of Muslims who say it is more difficult for them in America since 9/11; nor does he mention that hate crimes against Muslims went from less than 30 in the year just before 9/11 to almost 500 in the year after it; or the events summarized above from the last week.

No, in Tobin's world, Rush Limbaugh has suffered more in the aftermath of terrorist attacks than America's Muslims. That belief doesn't make Tobin a bad guy -- just a case study in extreme obliviousness. It's especially hard to forgiven because I've alerted him to this evidence before.

Most Americans have behaved responsibly in the last week.

But a significant minority has shown itself willing to make knee-jerk accusations that do significant harm to perfectly innocent people. Amidst it all, responsible journalists don't disappear the problem. Americans ought to be made aware of all the times innocent Muslims have been victimized in hopes that it makes their would be tormenters less sure of themselves. That is so whether the Boston perpetrators turn out to be Islamists, left-wing, right-wing, or anything else.

The value of speculating about their identity before it is known?

Zero.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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