Terrance Heath

Blaming the Right People

Filed By Terrance Heath | April 19, 2013 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: blame brown people, Boston Marathon bombings, New York Post, racial profiling, Saudi national, snap judgements

boston-bombing-suspects.jpgI have not yet written about the bombing of the Boston marathon, for a number of reasons. What was there to say that had been said and said repeatedly. Yes, the attack was horrific. Yes, the loss of life was beyond tragic. (As a parent of two young boys, any story of a child being endangered or murdered is enough to render me an insensible, emotional wreck.) Yes, the stories of heroism amidst the chaos is inspiring. (While the attacks are a sobering reminder of the worst human beings are capable of, the those who rose to the occasion and rushed to help total strangers are reassuring examples of the best in us.)

There was one more reason I decided to keep my mouth shut. I didn’t want to risk joining in the inevitable speculation about who might be responsible.

And, boy, was there some serious speculation. By now, everyone has heard how the New York Post and Fox News (surprise, surprise) leapt to the conclusion that the Saudi national police questioned at the hospital where he was being treated for his injuries was a suspect and even reported that he’d been taken into custody, or that he was being held under guard at the hospital.

Meanwhile, the man’s apartment was searched, and his roommate questioned. You probably saw the video of his roommate being interviewed by the media.

Last night, a phalanx of officers from the FBI, ATF and Boston swarmed the fifth-floor apartment in Revere's Ocean Shores Tower in what residents said was a startling show of force just hours after the horrific Boston Marathon double bombing.

In addition to two Boston Police K-9 units and a bomb squad unit, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as Homeland Security investigators and state police also assembled at the two buildings on Ocean Avenue in Revere.

Boston Police Crime Scene Response unit, which collects evidence following major crimes, was on the scene and two members of that unit took several brown paper bags, normally used to store evidence taken from the scene, into the building.

Bada said police removed things from the apartment, but he does not know what.

"I was five hours with the police," Bada said in broken English. "I signed some paper to let them in."

Police questioned him in Arabic, with a translator, he said.

"I was scared," he said.

It finally got so bad that the police had to make it clear this man was interviewed as a witness, not a suspect.

U.S. law enforcement officials said Tuesday that a Saudi national injured in the Boston Marathon bombing is regarded as a witness, not a suspect.

The Saudi, who is recuperating at a Boston hospital, is in his 20s and is in the United States on a Saudi scholarship to study at a university in the Boston area.

The federal officials' explanation echoed comments by a Saudi official at the country's embassy in Washington. The embassy official said that a Saudi national has been questioned as a witness but is not regarded as a suspect. The Saudi official cited information provided to the embassy by U.S. law enforcement officials.

"We're not aware of any Saudi suspect or Saudi person of interest," said the Saudi official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the preliminary nature of the information.

He declined to identify the young man, but said he sustained serious burn injuries. The official said the victim is cooperating with U.S. investigators and granted permission for his Boston area apartment to be searched.

"He volunteered to have it searched," the Saudi official said. "He is fully cooperating with authorities."

Now that police apparently have made “significant progress” in the investigation -- enough for Boston law enforcement to declare “We got him” -- perhaps the rest of us will soon know more about who’s to blame.

But that’s not what I mean by “blaming the right people” in the title of this post. Let’s return to the Saudi national. Whoever he is, he can be glad that at least his name wasn’t reported while he was being called a “suspect” by the media, and said to be “in custody.” The interview with his roommate probably goes a long way to identifying him to those with few enough degrees of separation to hazard a guess. He might even get the fisheye from the neighbors upon his return from the hospital.

That’s a lot to deal with, on top of dealing with the physical injuries from the bombing, not to mention the psychological injuries. (It seems inevitable that the injured, the first responders, and people on the scene of the attack will struggle with PTSD as a consequence.)

You have to read this New Yorker column by Amy Davidson to understand what happened to this injured, 20-year-old man who stood out for one major reason.

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.

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.

What made them suspect him? He was running--so was everyone. The police reportedly thought he smelled like explosives; his wounds might have suggested why. He said something about thinking there would be a second bomb--as there was, and often is, to target responders. If that was the reason he gave for running, it was a sensible one. He asked if anyone was dead--a question people were screaming. And he was from Saudi Arabia, which is around where the logic stops. Was it just the way he looked, or did he, in the chaos, maybe call for God with a name that someone found strange?

What happened next didn't take long. "Investigators have a suspect--a Saudi Arabian national--in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, The Post has learned." That's the New York Post, which went on to cite Fox News. The "Saudi suspect"--still faceless--suddenly gave anxieties a form. He was said to be in custody; or maybe his hospital bed was being guarded. The Boston police, who weren't saying much of anything, disputed the report--sort of. "Honestly, I don't know where they're getting their information from, but it didn't come from us," a police spokesman told TPM. But were they talking to someone? Maybe. "Person of interest" became a phrase of both avoidance and insinuation. On the Atlas Shrugs Web site, there was a note that his name in Arabic meant "sword." At an evening press conference, Ed Davis, the police commissioner, said that no suspect was in custody. But that was about when the dogs were in the apartment building in Revere--an inquiry that was seized on by some as, if not an indictment, at least a vindication of their suspicions.

Even if he’s not the suspect, he was and probably will be held suspect for a while. The question is, who’s to blame for that?

As someone who’s been profiled for being an African-American male in what someone else perceives as the “wrong place” and “wrong time,” I can offer some insight on that question. On the occasions when I’ve been profiled, I’ve been told who to blame for my being profiled. The answer I usually get (and usually from conservatives) goes something like this. “You want to blame someone for you getting profiled? Blame those other black men who are out there committing the crimes that caused you to get profiled.”

This next part usually (but not always) goes unspoken: “Whatever you do, don’t blame the people who profiled you. They are just doing their jobs/being good citizens/ etc. It’s not their fault they took one look at you and see a criminal.”

Say what?

The young Saudi national may hear some version of the above. If he does, it will go something like this: “Don’t blame the people who saw you running and injured like everyone else but thought you were a terrorist. Don’t blame the media for naming you a suspect. Don’t blame the police for questioning you out of every other injured person running from the scene. They were just doing their jobs.”

This next part probably will be spoken in his case: “You want to blame someone? Blame your fellow Muslims for carrying out terrorist attacks against this country. They’re the one’s who caused you to get profiled.”

Say what?

Actually, if I were this young man, I’d say something like this:

Blame my fellow Muslims? But my fellow Muslims didn’t single me out for questioning, because of how I looked. My fellow Muslims didn’t search my apartment, and walk bomb-sniffing dogs past my neighbors. My fellow Muslims didn’t question my roommate for five hours, broadcast his face and his name across the world, and ask him if he was sure he hadn’t been living with a killer -- while he was trying to get to school. My fellow Muslims didn’t report that I’d been taken into custody, or that police had my hospital bed under guard. My fellow Muslims didn’t make me a suspect, while showing every other victim appropriate sympathy.

My fellow Muslims didn’t do any of those things.

In fact the overwhelming majority of my fellow Muslims have never committed a terrorist attack against any country, and certainly not against this one. The overwhelming majority of my fellow Muslims would never dream of doing so, and deplore the actions of those who have.

If you put all the Muslims who have committed terrorist acts in one room, they would account for a tiny sliver of a percentage of “my fellow “Muslims.” If you could put them all in a room, it would make it more convenient for me to blame them for my being profiled.

But here’s the thing: They didn’t do any of those things to me either. You can argue that their actions caused people to look at all young men of Arab descent, like myself, as potential terrorists under any circumstances, in any context -- even running away from a bombing attack while bleeding from injuries.

That’s the definition of profiling. But it’s not an involuntary reflex, otherwise everyone would do it. It’s a choice, and not one everyone makes. Some people do it, but some people don’t.

So, if I got profiled because I was a young man of Arab descent, injured and running away from the scene of a bombing, and some people chose to profile me as and treat me as a potential terrorist, or even a confirmed suspect, who should I blame for that?

Profiling isn’t new, you know. In another time, the mere accusation, the flimsiest of evidence, and the word of someone an acceptable eyewitness would have been enough to get this young man lynched and the case closed before the end of the week.

Fortunately, we’ve moved beyond that. Not all that are beyond it, but beyond it.

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