The Wrong Man: In Memory of Sunil Tripathi

(Originally written for Cargo 18, June 2013)

On 15 April 2013, two homemade IUDs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three spectators, aged 29, 23, and eight. 264 others were injured. The bombs, as we now know, were remote control devices made from pressure cookers (the sort you would find in an average kitchen), and they were set and detonated by two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Tsarnaev brothers immigrated to the U.S. in 2002, and Dzhokhar, the younger of the two, became a U.S. citizen in 2012. They were identified based on surveillance footage taken minutes before the explosions in Boston, which the FBI released on 18 April. Immediately upon regaining consciousness, one victim of the bombing, Jeff Bauman, alerted agents to the fact that he had seen the bombers and provided police with a detailed description that matched the images of the brothers in the security footage. Soon afterwards, the Tsarnaevs killed MIT police officer Sean Collier, were involved in a carjacking, and became engaged in a shootout with officers near the MIT campus, during which time Tamerlan was killed. Dzhokahr escaped, but was found following a massive manhunt and taken into custody the next day.

There is nothing controversial in the above account. As the official record of events makes clear, an unconscionable act of terrorist violence took place in Boston, at a highly public professional / amateur sporting event. Through quick, coordinated action, the perpetrators were neutralized – one killed in an exchange of gunfire with police, the other successfully apprehended. In addition to the typical channels of police work, two broader methods of social self-surveillance were pivotal in bringing a swift conclusion to the Boston bombings case: closed-circuit technology and eyewitness participation. The Tsarnaevs were apprehended because they were identified on surveillance video, and because the description independently matched that provided by Bauman. Eyewitness testimony is nothing new in the solving of crimes, although since 9/11, we can observe a broader attempt within post-industrial, capital-concentrated nation-states to conscript the populace into a mass-deputy mentality. This is perhaps best summarized by the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s safety slogan, “If You See Something, Say Something,” which has moved beyond the New York subway and become a global catchphrase for anti-terrorist vigilance. As part of the post-9/11 security bargain, in which we trade privacy for greater safety, we accept the omnipresence of cameras and, to some degree, become extensions of that omnipresence.

However something a bit different happened in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings. If we were to map this wrinkle onto the official account, it would occur somewhere between the murder of Officer Collier and carjacking, when various Twitter users began to take notice of the story as it was developing. This was partly due to a handful of Twitter users in Watertown, Massachusetts, or on the MIT campus, who were live-tweeting events they themselves were witnessing. (During the manhunt, Boston police issued a general order for citizens to remain indoors, so locals had an interest in the developing situation that had much more to do with their immediate safety than any sensationalist thrill-mongering.) But there was an additional Twitter-related complication. Over 150,000 web users were listening in to live police radio (via the website Broadcastify) and an account was quickly created to live-tweet information from the feed.

As is often the case with Twitter, the real-time forwards resulted in exponential following of the account, as well as rampant retweeting of the account’s tweets. How could this be wise? Reporting intra-officer communications could undoubtedly compromise the operation, as well as the officers’ safety. Luckily that did not happen, but something else did. The Boston Police Scanner Twitter – again, an unofficial account, comprised of rapid, real-time half-transcriptions of poached audio broadcasts from the web – reported the following: "Police on scanner identify the names of #BostonMarathon suspects in gunfight, Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.” If this information went across the radio at all, it was likely a momentary speculation of a detective on the scene, prior to their having killed and identified Tamerlan Tsarnaev. (Who might these men be?) After the fact, investigators claimed that no officer ever uttered the two men’s names on any police channel. But once this speculation hit the Almighty Internet, it became Holy Writ. Hundreds of thousands of self-appointed web sleuths pounced on this misinformation, on Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, and in the dark interstices of the web where one finds the rhizomatic hacktivist entity Anomymous. (One of the semi-official Anomymous Twitter accounts was responsible for the greatest number of retweets of the original message.)

Shortly before the shootout and alleged police transmission’s rebroadcast, the FBI began disseminating the now-famous still image of the Tsarnaevs from surveillance footage, which went viral on the web. But then, one person who went to high school with Tripathi posted a note on Reddit, claiming she thought she recognized one of the bombers as her former classmate. Within minutes, while actual local law enforcement was engaging in tedious but vital procedure, netizens were circulating the surveillance photos, with the wrong names attached, and aggressively tracing the last known whereabouts of two innocent men, one of whom (Tripathi) had been missing since 16 March. A student at Brown University who had suffered from depression, his family and friends, in a cruel irony, had tried to use the web to gather information in order to locate Sunil. His body was found in the Providence River on 23 April, a probable suicide. Very little is known about Mike Mulugeta, fortunately for him. Since web searches on his name bring up very little, it is likely he will recover from this invasion of privacy, in due time. In any case, a great deal of editorializing and measured self-censure ensued, the typical measures designed to make sure that no one has to accept any real blame, or worse, face any potential regulations. Erik Martin of Reddit issued an apology and indicated a need for reflection so that the website and its users “make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations.” But of course, this simply means self-regulation, which has always been the watchword for Reddit and Twitter. (Facebook has greater restrictions, but they are self-serving to the company’s interests and indemnities; as for 4chan, you could probably threaten to assassinate the president there, name the time, place, and weapon, and no one would bat an eyelash.) But no matter – the crowdsourcing of law enforcement was clearly upon us.

What this tells us, of course, is that we, the individuals who have been so thoroughly conscripted into the War on Terror, are the only ones who should expect any form of discipline for our life-destroying misdeeds. And, as befitting an era whose capital is produced more and more by the revenue generated by banner ads and unique hits, our discipline will only come in the form of a series of strong suggestions. When we go on the web, we are laborers. We are the product; our attention is being monetized. When we can be mobilized in particular directions, this is highly profitable. We have been trained to consider the web to be a medium radically different in its profit base than older models, like commercial television (analyzed so brilliantly in Richard Serra and Carlotta Schoolman’s 1973 video Television Delivers People: The major difference is geometric, television being unidirectional and the Internet being multidimensional. In any case, we are asked to use the web more responsibly, to avoid participating in witch-hunts and real-time techno-lynchings. But no actual restrictions would ever be imposed, because that would be to prevent us from performing our jobs as value-adding eyes.

What’s more, the Boston bombing Internet fiasco is an inevitable result of the mass deputization has in part defined good citizenship post 9/11. Even an entity such as Anonymous, which has engaged in denial-of-service attacks against certain corporate and governmental targets, has established a degree of goodwill by performing “public service” vigilante hacktivist actions that official law enforcement cannot, such as infiltrating the “dark web” to expose child molesters and purveyors of kiddie-porn. While these actions seem to point to a logical conclusion – Anonymous has mid- to high-level law enforcement agents among its ranks – it does place what could be perceived as a terrorist group into a semi-protected echelon, as private citizens acting in secret, who “saw something” and then, rather than saying something, did what few others had the skills to do.

But the bottom line is this. Our vigilance was demanded. We were unqualified to participate in law enforcement. So what did we have? Fears, prejudices, racial biases, and not much else. Why did Tripathi enter the picture in the first place? Well, he was a young man with brown skin and an Indian surname, shown in one photo wearing a hoodie. This tells us absolutely nothing, of course, and really it was only his brown skin that prompted the frenzy. And what of the Tsarnaevs? We have learned that they were Chechen Muslims, and that Tamerlan and possibly his mother seemed to have become increasingly radical and anti-American in recent years. But Tamerlan was married to an American woman who was pregnant with his child, and Dzhokahr, according to some, was largely just a follower who did whatever his older brother told him. We’re sure to learn more during his trial. No connection to any larger terrorist network has been found, and all Chechen factions have unequivocally disavowed and condemned the attack, the Dagestan Mujahedeen stating outright that Chechen separatists “are at war with Russia, not the United States.”

So, regardless of their Islamist beliefs, the Tsarnaev brothers are domestic terrorists, not at all unlike Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the right-wing extremists who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. But this hasn’t prevented U.S. politicians, egged on by the ever-vigilant Internet, from taking the Boston bombings as an opportunity to derail planned immigration reform, in favor of draconian background checks and an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, that would cancel asylum or refugee status of any immigrant who returned to their home country. Others favored a “biometric tracking system” for foreign nationals at all U.S. points of entry. So the Tsarnaevs, who became radical lunatics while living in the U.S.A., came from a Muslim country, and so this lunacy was a latent potential, lurking in their blood, just waiting to be activated like some special serum in an episode of “Alias.” And every immigrant is another Muhammad Atta, the bomb in the shoe, the jihadist in the woodpile.

If you see something, say something. Just pray it’s not being said about you.