The tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15th, 2013 left four dead and 264 injured, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. One week later, the victims of the attacks, including 8-year old Martin Richard, 23-year old Lu Lingzi, 28-year old Sean Collier and 29-year old Krystle Campbell were remembered during a moment of silence on Boston’s Boylston Street, near the site of the explosions. With emotions running high, a Boston city police officer broke the heavy silence by raising his fist to the sky, energizing the crowd of people into an eruption of applause.
The surviving brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is being held under federal custody in a prison hospital. His capture occurred on April 19th, 2013, four days after the attack and one day after his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a police shoot out in Watertown, MA. While federal investigators continue to peel away at the motives for the attack, much remains to be discussed about the role of mass media and the consequences of instant reporting.
Sunil Tripathi: Media as a double-edged sword
The various uses of social mass media in the days following the bombings, in many ways, offered something positive. Images of everyday people like ‘Cowboy hat hero’ Carlos Arredondo, rushing to the aid of others circulated the Internet, while thousands of Bostonians posted “I have a place to offer” messages on a Google-sponsored spread sheet.
However, media networks like Reddit.com along with television news giants like Fox News Channel and CNN feverishly reported the story with information that was both erroneous and strongly biased. The first to report on a potential suspect, CNN, claimed that city officials had made an arrest of a “dark-skinned male,” even though no official statement existed. Their racially-charged broadcast was “confirmed” by unnamed law enforcement officials and quickly corroborated by others, pushing it to both air and print.
As the manhunt continued the following day, users of Reddit.com, inspired to contribute to the investigation, doggedly circled the faces of the individuals wearing hats, sunglasses, hoods and backpacks of the various images that flooded the Internet. They continued in this way until a photo, released by the FBI, showed two suspects with backpacks and sunglasses. Without much time, Sunil Tripathi was falsely accused by countless Reddit users as one of the attackers. Shortly after, federal investigators identified the names of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but the damage was already done.
Almost as quickly as the accusation came, Reddit’s general manager publicly offered an apology to the Tripathi family for the avoidable mistake: “Though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on Reddit fuelled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiralled into very negative consequences for innocent parties… The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”
Sadly, the body of Tripathi was found on April 25th in a river in Providence, RI. His family and friends later posted a message on Facebook, which read: “As we carry indescribable grief, we also feel incredible gratitude… Your compassionate spirit is felt by Sunil and by all of us. This last month has changed our lives forever, and we hope it will change yours too.”
On April 18th, Conservative radio talk-show host Glenn Beck stated that a Saudi national, Abdul Rahman Ali Alharbi, originally identified by the FBI as a “person of interest,” was linked to the attacks; although on Wednesday April 17th, Alharbi’s file was cleared of the association to the explosions. Beck said, “While the media continues to look at what the causes were of [the then identified Tsarnaev brothers], there are, at this hour, three people involved.” He continued to examine the background of Alharbi, who, according to The Blaze, was soon to be deported under section 212 3B — classified on “security and related grounds” — and urged listeners “to call your congressmen right now… they need your support, they need your help… If we do not stand up, he is on a plane tomorrow or he is already gone.” An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official refuted The Blaze’s report, stating that it was “categorically false.”
Call for patience
Responding to misconstrued information, the FBI warned news media of the “unintended consequences” associated with instant reporting. It asked everyone to “exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”
Speaking with TIME magazine, two “self-deputized” reporters of Reddit.com honestly admitted that they “just want[ed] everything answered. Instead of waiting for answers to come to us, we [tried] to get them ourselves.” To do so, they listened to police scanners and trailed investigators at every turn, posting all information to the website’s “FindBostonBombers” section. It was only after Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were publicly identified as the two responsible, that the witch-hunt ended. For all of the falsely accused, the creator of Reddit’s popular subsection, when asked if their effort was worth it, username oops777 replied, “Not even slightly.”
Speaking to the press moments after the capture of the younger Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Friday, April 19th, President Obama lamented over the week-long manhunt and restated the importance of honest reporting: “In this age of instant reporting, tweets and blogs, there is a temptation… sometimes to jump to conclusions, but… it’s important to do this right. That’s why we have investigations. That’s why we relentlessly gather the facts. That’s why we have courts.”
American Civil Liberties and the Tsarnaev brothers
It took four days and skilled investigators to eventually identify the two men responsible for the senseless act of terror. The sons of Chechnyan parents, Tamerlan, age 26, and Dzhokhar, age 19, came to the United States with their family in 2001 as refugees. They lived with their parents in Massachusetts and attended the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. When he came to the US, Tamerlan was considerably older than his brother, and many who knew them both said that he had a harder time adjusting to the American lifestyle.
Government officials affirmed that all evidence suggests that the two “self-radicalized” only after they immigrated to the US, being strongly influenced by “Internet sites and US actions in the Muslim world,” writes the Washington Post. In fact, Dzhokhar’s YouTube channel hosted a number of video posts that preach the values of fundamentalism and violent jihad, including one of the Black Banners of Khurasan, prophesizing the rise of a powerful Islamic military to defeat the infidels. Despite being influenced by these teachings, the FBI maintains that there is no evidence to suggest that the two brothers were acting under the sponsorship of any global terrorist organization.
However, when the news broke that two Chechen-born immigrants were responsible for the attacks, many reacted prejudicially as they questioned the state of national security and incited the same “Islamophobic” climate post 9/11.
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) argued that “the threat is coming from within the Muslim community in these cases,” and urged the US to increase surveillance of Muslim communities across the country. John Feffer, a co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, attests that this racially-charged belief of King is part of a much larger “Islamophobic” culture that has been perpetuated through American news media over the past decade, a culture that only “serves as a vehicle” for politicians to push their personal ideologies into legislation.
In March 2011, King led the House Homeland Security Committee in discussing “the extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community.” The hearing was in response to an American imam’s proposal to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, to which King argued was “particularly offensive” since “so many Islamic leaders have failed to speak out against radical Islam” and the attacks on 9/11. Many people, however, were equally offended with King’s language, as he often casted a collective blame on the entire Muslim community for the actions of al Qaeda.
Speaking on behalf of the American Islamic Congress’ Boston chapter, Nasser Weddady coincides with Feffer on the growing trend of Islamophobia. He says, “Ever since [9/11], yes, there has been a pattern… Whenever events [occur] involving terrorism or, at times, Muslim perpetrators, there is a backlash and there’s a rise [in Islamophobia]. It’s not ad hoc or spontaneous, because there are some quarters that have been clearly trying to paint all Muslims as potential terrorists — and it’s generally these quarters that contribute to the rise of that feeling.”
Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) led a group of conservative politicians arguing for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be tried as a military combatant. The two went to Facebook once word of Dzhokar’s arrest was made public. They write, “[N]ow that the suspect is in custody, the last thing we should want is for him to remain silent… Under the Law of War we can hold this suspect as a potential enemy combatant not entitled to Miranda warnings or the appointment of counsel. We remain under threat from radical Islam and we hope the Obama Administration will seriously consider the enemy combatant option.”
However, under the Authorization of Use for Military Force resolution of 2001, it states that authorization to hold individuals in military detention is for “only those who are ‘part of’ or ‘substantially supporting’ Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces.” Furthermore, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 concludes that “trial by military commission for violations of the law of war” pertains to “any individual who is not a United States citizen.” Since Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a naturalized American citizen in September 2012, he should receive due process in a civilian court.
Writing for Truthdig.org, Bill Blum, a former judge and death penalty defense attorney, argues that to try Tsarnaev as a military combatant would “further erode American civil liberties,” and is not “necessary from a legal or practical perspective… [for] in New York’s federal courts, the conviction rate [of terrorism cases] is 100 percent.”
Responding to the hysteria that circulated news media after the Boston Marathon attacks, journalist Bruce Schneier offers some words of reason. He writes, “How well this attack succeeds depends much less on what happened in Boston than by our reactions in the coming weeks and months. Terrorism isn’t primarily a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds… [and] when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail, even if their attacks succeed.”