WASHINGTON — Hours after the Boston Marathon bombing, there was already Internet chatter that a “Saudi national” was the suspect. Police raided the apartment of Abdulrahman Ali Alharbi, a 22-year-old student from Saudi Arabia, as he was recovering from the blasts in a Boston hospital.
Next, CNN’s John King raised the alarm about a more elusive “dark-skinned male” who the TV reporter said was in custody on Wednesday.
The following day, the New York Post got more specific. It slapped pictures of two young men on its front page, calling them “Bag Men” and identifying them as persons of interest to federal authorities. One was Salah Barhoum, 17, a Moroccan American middle-distance runner.
And then there was news that a man in Bronx, N.Y., who was born in Bangladesh was beaten up for supposedly being “a f*cking Arab” by a group of men who wanted retribution for the marathon bombing.
A Palestinian woman near Boston also reported being the victim of a hateful assault on Wednesday, when a man hit her and yelled, “F*ck you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions.”
What all of these people have in common is that they’re innocent of the bombing. They also happen not to be white.
For the most part, the response to the marathon bombing has brought out humanity’s better angels. Deserved attention has been shed on the heroic efforts of bystanders like Carlos Arredondo and the many first responders who rushed to help the injured.
But it has also served as a depressing reminder that the racial profiling that increased against men of Middle Eastern, Arab and South Asian descent after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks continues to infect the public response to terrorism.
It may turn out that the Boston Marathon bombers are Arab. But they could also be white, black, Native American, Asian or Hispanic. While CBS News tweeted Wednesday that a “white male” was a possible suspect, most people subjected to the speculation grinder have been non-white — all before the FBI on Thursday released photos of two racially ambiguous suspects.
The consequences have been brutal for some of the innocent people caught in the frenzy.
Alharbi had “every inch” of his apartment searched by law enforcement, with authorities seen lugging away bags of items from his home. Residents in his building called it “a startling show of force.” His roommate was questioned for five hours.
“I was scared,” the roommate, Mohammed Hassan Bada, 20, of Saudi Arabia, told the Boston Herald.
Meanwhile, Alharbi was recovering from shrapnel wounds in a hospital. News outlets later reported that he was a witness, not a suspect, and “was apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
CNN’s “dark-skinned male” never materialized, as it quickly became clear that its report of an arrest was wrong. PBS journalist Gwen Ifill said she found it “disturbing” that a television network was allowed to characterize a supposed bombing suspect in such a way.
Barhoum had his world turned upside-down when he saw himself on the cover of the New York Post.
“It’s the worst feeling that I can possibly feel. … I’m only 17,” he said. His mother, meanwhile, felt “sick and upset.”
Barhoum went to the police on Wednesday to clear his name, after he noticed photos of himself getting tagged on social media. He was unable to compete in the marathon, but decided to go and watch. Federal authorities told ABC News that they were passing around his picture to find more information — as they no doubt were doing with pictures of many of the people photographed on Monday.
Later Thursday, after a public outcry over its cover image, the New York Post ran a follow-up story clarifying that authorities said the two “bag men” had “neither had any information or role in Monday’s attacks at the Boston Marathon.”
The rush for indictment and revenge has also taken a toll on Abdullah Faruque, 30, the Bronx man who was beaten up for having brown skin and looking “Arab.” He was assaulted by three or four men outside an Applebee’s on Monday, just hours after the bombing.
“One of the guys asked if I was Arab. I just shook my head, said like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ I didn’t even know that [the] Boston [bombing] happened because I had a busy day,” Faruque explained to the New York Post.
“Yeah, he’s a f*cking Arab,” responded one of the men, before the group jumped him. They dislocated his shoulder and left him semiconscious.
Heba Abolaban, who lives near Boston, was assaulted and harassed on Wednesday. Abolaban told Malden Patch that while she and her friend, who were both wearing hijabs, were walking with their children, a man came up and punched her shoulder and accused them of being involved in the Boston Marathon bombing.
“I did not say anything to him,” Abolaban said. “Not even that we aren’t terrorists. … He was so aggressive.”
“I’d like to think that our society has matured a little bit in the past decade and better understands that Muslim Americans feel the exact same way about preventing terrorism and the heinous nature of attacks against civilians,” said David Schanzer, director of the TriangleCenter on Terrorism and Homeland Security at DukeUniversity. “Unfortunately, there are always going to be small numbers of Americans who don’t get the memo. And I’m not going to draw conclusions on the direction of society based upon the actions of a couple of idiots. That’s about all you can about those types of incidents.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim American elected to Congress, said members of the Muslim community he’s met with this week are mourning the tragedy like the rest of the country.
“I think everyone needs to take a page from what President Obama said, which is to calm down and not jump to conclusions,” Ellison said. “Certainly you’re not helping any of the Boston victims by jumping on somebody just because of their religion or what they’re wearing.”
Ellison added that he met with Muslim leaders this week for a pre-scheduled meeting. “Their position was, we’re in solidarity with our fellow Americans,” he said.
Talal Alyan, an Arab American student, launched an online campaign on Thursday demanding that the New York Post apologize for its coverage.
“We demand an apology from the New York Post for identifying a Saudi Arabian national as a suspect for the Boston Marathon bombing despite having no evidence,” read the petition, which had more than 6,600 signatures as of Thursday evening. “The New York Post based their conclusion that the wounded marathon runner was a suspect only on the fact that he was an Arab. The New York Post needs to apologize to the falsely accused and the broader Arab and Muslim community.”
Still, Barhoum was uneasy at being targeted, while others around him in the marathon crowd weren’t.
“The only thing they look at is my skin color and since I’m Moroccan, I’m kind of dark,” said Barhoum. “Last night I couldn’t sleep. Just thinking about the consequences. What are people going to say and what the result is going to be.”