Friday, April 19, 2013

Innocent People Will Always Be Singled Out

Clarence Thomas, let me direct your attention to Salah Eddin Barhoum.

You think you had it tough when Anita Hill said that you sexually harassed her, talked about pubic hair on a Coke can and mentioned Long Dong Silver. A "high tech lynching," you called it. Feh.

'Tweren't nothing (even if all that stuff about your behavior and predilections weren't true).

You want to talk about "high tech lynching"? As I said, direct your attention to Salah Eddin Barhoum: suspect.

Let's be clear. A "suspect" is a person who's suspected. Suspicion can dissipate. Sometimes suspects are charged. Sometimes they're not. Sometimes suspects are ultimately found to be legally guilty. Sometimes they're not. Sometimes suspects are factually guilty. Sometimes (despite what Ed Meese said) they're not.

Because suspicion isn't the same as guilt. That's absolutely fundamental to our system of justice and to principles of fair play and decency. It's also a basic fact.

Alas, we live in a world where those things often don't much matter. Which brings me back to young Mr. Barhoum. He's 17 years old, a high school student, a runner on the track team. He lives in Revere, Massachusetts just outside Boston. Yesterday, his picture was on the front page of the New York Post.

He was identified as a suspect in the Boston marathon bombings.

Not by the police or the FBI or any other government agency, it seems. No, they were busy sifting evidence and looking for, and then identifying as suspects the brothers Tsarnaev who, it must be said, remain only suspects at this point despite the hype and the news reports and the apparent fact that one of them has now been killed and so will never stand trial.  

But this isn't about the late Tameralan and his not-yet-late brother Dzhokhar. This is about Salah Bharoum and how he ended up on the front page of the Post, identified as a suspect.

He got there because of you and me.  (Well, not literally.  That's a metaphorical you and me.)  He was a victim of the internet age and social media.  From the Dave Lee at the BBC.
For the past 48 hours, internet users have been working with each other to piece together clues about the culprits of the Boston bombings. The result? They got it wrong - and left innocent people fearing for their safety. Many are now asking: should "crowd-sourced investigations" be stopped?

Thousands have been tirelessly picking through the evidence - every piece of video footage, every photo, every eyewitness account they can get their hands on.

But this investigation wasn't within the confidential confines of the FBI or local police.

No, these sleuths were working in public - discussing their theories and "leads" within massive communities such as Reddit, 4Chan, Facebook and Twitter.
First they accused Sunil Tripathi.  He's 22 and he's been missing since mid-March.  Ooops.  Now the Reddit police have apologized.  Gee, sorry we named this guy, who had nothing to do with it.  We know we brought shame and pain to his family.  But golly, as people who troll the internet and think we're all Sherlock Holmes, we were just doing our job.

And then it was Salah Bharoum.  He's not missing.  He's hiding, afraid for his safety.

Joshua Miller in the Boston Globe.

The teenager later told ABC News that when he saw the Post’s front page, “It’s the worst feeling that I can possibly feel. . . . I’m only 17.”

Outside the family’s apartment building on Thursday, a man who indicated he was ­Barhoum’s father, but declined to give his name, told a Globe reporter and other members of the press in broken English that reporters had been hounding his family all day Thursday and they had been afraid to leave.

“From one o’clock in the morning till now, we [ate] nothing,” he said. “Please, can you respect my family?”

“The picture of my son on the Internet, [he] is now skewered,” the man said.
I've had plenty of negative things to say about law enforcement.  The cops aren't immune to mistake. They beat and taze and killing innocent people.  They lie on the witness stand.  They get tunnel vision and go after the wrong folks.  They hide evidence or shitcan it.  Not always, maybe not most of the time.  But they do it.  Too often. (Once is too often.)  At least in theory, though, they have constraints.  They're not supposed to, if you'll excuse the expression, shoot from the hip.  And we can at least hope that they don't publicly announce that it looks like so and so killed three, injured 170 some others, and terrorized a city just 'cause some guy with a laptop says he's found a picture that he finds suspicious and that he thinks kind of looks like this other guy.

And this other guy just happened to be Mr. Bharoum.  Who had nothing to do with anything.  Though you couldn't tell that from the Post that figured he belonged on the front page.

Which brings us to this next part.  There are those who will forever believe that Salah Bharoum was involved in setting those bombs.  Because he was accused.  Because Ed Meese was wrong, but the public doesn't think so.  And because the internet is forever.
Dave Lee, again.
"This subreddit has been a disaster that has done more harm than good," wrote Reddit user DarrenGrey.

"It ended up an epicentre of unstoppable finger-pointing and wild conjecture.

"And worst of all the mainstream media leapt on the information here like hungry hyenas.

"Unreliable crowd-sourced material plus the media's ravenous desire for fresh information has proved a disgusting mix. Let's never ever do this again."
Which is a nice sentiment, but not universally held.
But one Reddit user, who has spent the past two days posting minute-by-minute updates on the police investigation, defended the actions of those on the site.

"Innocent people will always be singled out," said Joseph Stuhr in an email to the BBC.

"That's why we have police. We can give them leads and they will figure everything out using facts and clues."

No flies on us.  No lessons learned.  One more time:
Innocent people will always be singled out.
Now that, Justice Thomas, is high tech lynching.


  1. Does Salah Bharoum have any recourse through civil law?

    1. Any answer I gave would probably be wrong, so rather than even say, "It depends," I'll stick with "I don't know."

    2. Well there we have it - an honest lawyer!