So Much for the Hunt for a 'Dark-Skinned Male'

Unlike the the 17-year-old track star of Moroccan descent featured on the front page of Thursday's New York Post, the immediate reaction to the FBI's release of photos of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing was how normal these guys looked. Which, after two days of false reports, sounded a lot like code for: they don't look Middle Eastern.

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Moments after the the FBI released photos of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, a CNN analyst and former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes was, like many Americans, expressing surprise at how normal these guys looked. "We've been advocating, if you see it say it." But these guys, he asked, "What would cause you to say anything? Two guys with baseball caps walking down the sidewalk like going to a picnic. No one is going to be suspicious of that by itself." Because, yes, the FBI is asking the public to be on the look out for men who appear to be frat guys. One is wearing a Bridgestone golf hat. They even inspired a Twitter meme: brofiling.

There have been two things the reports of suspects reaching the media have had since the blast: they've been wrong and they've involved men of Middle Eastern descent. Thursday morning started with a 17-year-old track star of Moroccan descent splashed across the front page of the New York Post. On Wednesday, CNN anchor John King erroneously reported that a "dark-skinned male" was in custody. On Monday, the New York Post (banner week for those guys) lead the charge on the report that a Saudi student injured in the blast was a "suspect" on Monday.

After the photos came out, CNN's Wolf Blitzer did point out that we still don't know the nationality, ethnicity, or motives of either man. "We can't say whether the person spoke with a foreign accent, or an American accent," he pointed out. It's still possible that these are Al Qaeda operatives in frat boy disguise, one supposes. It's a possibility.

But the suspicion that the bombing was the work of Middle Eastern terrorists has been tough for certain quarters of America to shake.  Even after the Saudi man was cleared, Fox News terror expert Steve Emerson wasn't buying it. On Wednesday night, he told Sean Hannity that the Saudi man "is now going to be deported on national security grounds next Tuesday, which is very unusual." He added, "You don't arrest their citizens, you deport them because they don't want them to be embarrassed and that's the way we appease them." Mark Fuhrman, the Fox News pundit and former LAPD detective caught up in the OJ Simpson trial, added that the federal government likes to "grease the wheel a lot because the Saudis are one of our biggest allies in the Middle East and we want to keep them that way." Right-wing sites picked up this story. But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano dismissed this as a rumor Thursday at a congressional hearing when South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan asked her about it. "I don’t even think he was technically a person of interest or a suspect, that was a wash," she said when pressed.

We still don't know anything about the suspects except for what they looked like on the day of the bombing. And we all know we shouldn't judge someone just by what they look like. But before the photos were released, lots of people were pretty sure who they should be looking for. And it was based on judging people by what they look like. A man who was at the marathon told the Boston radio station WCVB, "I seen one kid that sticks out in my head... He looked Muslim -- I'm not racist, but that's my instinct. To look for someone Muslim." And there's the person who tackled Alharbi because he was running away from the explosion, just like everyone else. Imagine being tackled after being severely burned.

We will not be relieved until the people responsible for the Boston bombing — these men or some others — are in custody. But now that the FBI has released photos, there is a relief of some sort: the mob can stop looking for young guys who look kind of Middle Eastern.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.