The way the stories of three men played out in this country and in the media over the past few months has been almost unbearable. In the end, very likely all three men will be dead. One jumped in the river to kill himself. Another, gunned down by police with a suicide vest strapped to his chest, and the third, his younger brother to be most likely put to death by the federal government. Three dead men, three senseless deaths.
It must be said up front that the what the Boston bombers did was unforgivable – casually setting off two bombs that killed four people and destroyed the bodies and lives of many others. Their intent was to kill Americans to protest America’s killing of innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as our continued involvement in war. Al Qaeda’s agenda became their agenda by association. They are Public Enemy #1 and Public Enemy #2 – everything we are taught to fear, second only to a school shooter, of which there are too many.
But somewhere upstate in Rhode Island another young man – not from the middle east but of Indian descent – Sunil Tripathi – became so depressed he decided to take off a semester at school. He disappeared in March. His body was just found floating in the river in Rhode Island. They suspect suicide. No signs of foul play. From Boston.com:
Tripathi’s family members, who had launched an intensive campaign to find him, said in a statement today that they had received the tragic news.
“As we carry indescribable grief, we also feel incredible gratitude,” the family wrote. “To each one of you –- from our hometown to many distant lands — we extend our thanks for the words of encouragement, for your thoughts, for your hands, for your prayers, and for the love you have so generously shared. Your compassionate spirit is felt by Sunil and by all of us.”
Laura Lague, spokeswoman for the Providence police, said a Brown University rowing coach saw Tripathi’s body in the water and called police around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. She did not know long he had been in the water.
“There was no foul play,’’ Lague said.
Tripathi was beloved by his family and friends, as thousands left facebook messages to him after he’d gone missing. The Facebook page was taken down when the website Reddit started making the (false) association between Tripathi and the Boston bombers. This, from the fuzzy surveillance video photos that had been released as the FBI requested help from the public in finding them. In truth, folks at Reddit and elsewhere on the web meant well; they were playing detective and hoping to have delivered the suspect. In fact, when a policeman identified Tripathi by name on the police scanner it seemed as though Reddit would emerge as the heroes of the day.
I know what that felt like as I was one of the few early tweeters and facebookers who was convinced the terrorist was Tripathi. I spent hours superimposing one photo over another because I’d seen on some detective show that you can tell people are the same by the unique curve of their ear. The chin, the eyes, the hair – Tripathi had disappeared a month beforehand and had left everything behind. Detectives had said that you only do that if you don’t expect to come back. Whether he was going to be a suicide bomber or someone committing suicide the end result would be the same. To me, the clues seemed SO obvious. It was like an episode of Homeland – all of the pieces fit. He still used an old fashioned flip phone but had left that behind. The way our world is now you don’t know who is a terrorist — translation: a person who hates America’s war policies and dirty deeds enough to give his own life and future over to what we call terrorism and radical Islam calls heroism.
Mine is a simplistic, silly view of the bigger picture which I very likely can’t comprehend. But that night, as I expressed to 10,000 plus followers on Twitter, it had to be Tripathi. When the truth came out I was awash in shame. There was no putting the genie back in the bottle, no way to undo having been so convinced but more than that willing to join along in what amounted to a witch hunt. When you look at moments in history when you can’t believe that people went along with atrocities like the Holocaust, like the Salem witch trials, like, even, the McMartin Preschool case: hysteria is contagious.
I didn’t know what to say anyone about it. The shame I felt was hidden from my followers. I didn’t eat public crow; there were enough people writing “you should be ashamed of yourself” tweets to me and “you owe the family an apology.” I rationalized it by trying to remember that I’d always tried to be cautious about the declarations — saying there was no official confirmation. I squirmed under my own denial. I wanted so badly not to be someone who would join the chorus of hysteria. But I was convinced it was him.
Even still, my sister told me to take down my facebook post about him – “you don’t want to be one of those people that went along with it if it turns out to be untrue,” she said. But I knew that I wanted to be one of the people who was right if it turned out to be true.
We were all flying high because we’d been listening to the police scanner and knew about the chase long before it was even on live television. There weren’t even news breaks yet on Google. There was only Twitter and Reddit and the news was coming fast. The rush of being somewhere no one had yet gotten to was intoxicating. We were in the lead and we wanted it to stay that way. The networks, particularly CNN, were flailing around it, seemed to be trying to catch up and then get ahead. But they couldn’t jump the gun again, not since CNN had incorrectly announced that the bombing suspects had been arrested. They couldn’t jump the gun but we, the mob, certainly could. There aren’t many consequences for those of us who send out incorrect assumptions. There is only shame and that awful curse of having been wrong.
Once I put out the potential info about Tripathi I got admiring tweets that said stuff like “if you turn out to be right you’ll get the credit!” Of course, I couldn’t take the credit because it was Reddit’s work initially. When it turned out to be wrong I was hoping I could blame Reddit but the truth is, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself. Being a reliable tweeter, whether you are a “journalist” or not requires that you not just tweet any old thing you hear but that you remain always skeptical, always seeking confirmation before sending out a message that will be retweeted all over the internet within minutes. Once something like that gets out it almost impossible to reel it back in.
We all have a certain social responsibility if we also continue to fight for internet freedom. With such a powerful tool literally at our fingertips we should never underestimate the good it can do, the bad it can do and the truly ugly that it can do, as we saw that horrible night. I like to think I learned my lesson about how easy it is to convince yourself something is true — so much so that logic and cation fly out the window. I will think twice next time. But more than that, I think I will stay off of Twitter when there’s breaking news, especially if all I have to offer is the opportunity to whip up hysteria.
By the time morning rolled around, the beleaguered citizens of Watertown were still on lockdown as the police hunted for the younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was later found alone and bleeding in a boat behind a resident’s home. The FBI, the National Guard, the entire Boston police department had weapons drawn as they hunted down these two boys. There was no way to escape that kind of firepower. But it wasn’t just law authorities – it was all of us too glued to our social networking, exchanging and passing around up to the minute photos, following the news cameras. If someone had been shot on live TV we all would have seen it. No one was going to turn off those cameras. We were all watching – we ARE Big Brother.
That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an American citizen who was accused of doing a bad thing was something most of us didn’t stop to question. We didn’t really stop to ponder Tripathi’s rights either. You see, in post 9/11 America being a terrorist means you lose your rights, you become an enemy so hated you could be hunted down and murdered on live TV.
They finally caught Tsarnaev who was rushed to the same hospital where the critically injured from his own pressure cooker bomb were being treated. He would be questioned and charged at his hospital bed without having been read his rights until a few days later. His face was everywhere. His past uncovered. Whoever he and his brother were their entire identities now belong to the citizens of this country. Most of us looked at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with fear and pity, not hatred. He was manipulated, we all thought, by his brother. Most of his friends talked about what a nice guy he was and on his hospital bed he was nothing but cooperative with law enforcement. He’d been wounded in the throat and couldn’t speak but he was nodding. He could have just clammed up and said nothing. And yet, the last thing we are supposed to feel for him is sympathy. We’re supposed to want him dead. But I know that I don’t. I don’t want him or anyone else dead.
What, please tell me, can explain all of this? Why would Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, such a bright kid who experienced an America that opened her doors to him, gave him every opportunity, even helped support his family with welfare, decide to destroy so many people’s lives that day, including his own? How does he get there? Why can’t he be stopped? And how does a bright, promising young student become so depressed he has to take his own life?
With no answers, only despair, perhaps the most meaningful words came from Tripathi’s own mother who had to endure the false accusations of her son before then finding out that he was dead anyway:
“This last month has changed our lives forever, and we hope it will change yours too. Take care of one another. Be gentle, be compassionate. Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it.”