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Clarence Page: When profiling becomes a real menace

BY CLARENCE PAGE Published: April 26, 2013

Some media found the possibility that foreign terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon to be too tantalizing an explanation to pass up, even when it snares the wrong suspects.

On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, the New York Post proudly presented a scoop that misidentified an injured “Saudi national” as a terror suspect. By the next day, authorities confirmed that the badly burned man actually was a witness, not a suspect. Sorry about that.

Online vigilantism ran so wild on the Reddit online link-sharing community that its general manager Erik Martin issued an apology this week. Before the brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and alleged co-conspirator Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, were identified as the bombing suspects, several innocent men whose photos and names were circulated through Reddit.

The meteoric rise of new Internet media created a new and dangerous rise of send-before-you-think journalism, especially in do-it-yourself media. That puts a greater burden on news consumers to be skeptical about how and what they are being served.

Unfortunately, it also can create real dangers to individual lives, social dialogue and even national security

For example, in a New York Times essay a day after the Boston bombings, Haider Javed Warraich, a medical resident in Boston, gave this explanation for why he decided against running into the action: As “a 20-something Pakistani male with dark stubble” owing to his hectic schedule in an intensive care unit, he wrote, “I look like Hollywood's favorite post-cold-war movie villain.”

That night CNN and ABC News journalist Christiane Amanpour read from Warraich's op-ed at the Arab American Institute's annual dinner in Washington.

Amanpour used Warraich's quote to underscore a point she wanted to make about what she called “the elephant in the room.” She was referring to the haunting concern by many in that hotel ballroom that the marathon bombers, not yet identified, might turn out to be Arabic — and rekindle post-Sept. 11 prejudices and suspicions about all Arabs.

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