05/01/2013 09:01 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Wrongfully Suspected: The Modern Witch Hunt and the Perpetuation of Violence


Brown University honors student Sunil Tripathi, whose photo was famously flashed on major news media sites in the hunt for potential Boston Marathon bombing suspects, was found dead four days ago. Although the official cause of his death has not yet been determined, his memory has now been tainted with lasting notions of his fleeting, yet devastating association with the crimes despite no evidence whatsoever that would tie him to the event. Though his case proves especially tragic, Tripathi is just another innocent victim of media speculation that added to the collateral damage of the tragedy of the actions that took place on April 15.

In the hours and days following the tragic bombings in Boston, scores of young, dark-skinned men reported to police stations seeking to absolve themselves of suspicion and ask for police assistance in maintaining their physical security in the aftermath of the events. Many were fearful for their lives and for any retributional justice they might experience at the hands of persons seeking to impose their own sense of justice in any way possible.

Since the events of 9/11, the terms "terrorism" and "national security" have become in vogue terms that represent the potentiality for danger that Muslims pose to non-Muslims, despite the fact that the perpetration of crimes between these two groups typically falls heavy-handedly on the part of non-Muslims. Last year's massacre of six people participating in peaceful worship in Oak Creek, Wisc., by a U.S. Army veteran, and the continued desecration of mosques throughout the country, are visual indications of such persecution, but continued individual prejudices and suspicions quietly persist at a much deeper and more insidious level.

A dangerous precedent for the betrayal of the fine democratic principles of justice and order is set when, in order to satiate our collective hunger to assuage fears quickly, the individuals we target for suspicion are also innocent victims of the same crimes. Such persecution begs the question, when entire communities of innocent people become scapegoated on the actions of a few extremists, don't we all become victims of our own inhumanity by partaking in a witch hunt for false justice?

Historically, these dangerous speculations have led to the innocent victimization of many through systematized discrimination to target potential criminals, most notably when these suspicions rest on visual clues, such as religious attire or skin color. It was this same framework of thinking that led to the establishment of New York City's Stop-and-Frisk law in 1991, which for more than two decades allowed New York Police Department officials to stop and search anyone who was deemed a threat through visual examination. Unsurprisingly, suspicions related to race and discrimination led to differential targeting of New Yorks, with blacks and Latinos being stopped and frisked far more frequently than whites. After the September 11 bombings of the World Trade Center, the number of individuals assumed to be of Muslim faith that were targeted for search skyrocketed. Luckily, after decades of discriminatory use, these laws drew entire ire and controversy to finally be ruled unconstitutional in January of this year.

Certainly not everyone in America participates in discriminatory acts or holds the same fears or presumptions about Muslims and their involvement in violence; however, more individuals should possess the strength to speak out against these harmful accusations and stereotypes when they arise. Viewers should also press news media sources to limit their dependence on inflammatory dialogue. Additionally, we must challenge ourselves to examine how such fear, such mistrust, and such misguided response to the media's representation of who is a threat and who is at risk affects our perceptions and our actions in daily lives and, at a macrosocial level, our criminal justice's response to the management of crime and threats of crime. Alternatively, we must analyze our own fears, prejudices, and psychological tendencies to "other" individuals that fall outside our own cultural norms.

When - -in the quest for improved ratings -- media outlets only propagate fears that anyone, anywhere can be a victim of violence at anytime, the challenge is to ask ourselves how much of this threat of violence exists only in our thoughts and minds, in our perceptions and our fears? Through these avenues we continue to perpetrate violence against ourselves and against our fellow man, always mentally stopping-and-frisking those around us that we deem a threat. When pressures to identify and detain often lead to wrongful suspicion and fear-mongering of the innocent, the costs of violence become all too real. What are the costs of violence when every young dark-skinned male is assumed to be violent or a risk to society? If we had to quantify, how much does each tear in the fabric of society cost us?