On Monday, millions of New Yorkers and North New Jerseyans received an emergency alert informing them that Ahmad Khan Rahami was wanted in connection to the recent Chelsea bombing. Yet the alert provided no information on what Rahami looked like. Instead, it advised recipients to check media reporting for photos. Vague alerts like these increase the chances of people overreacting and open the doors for paranoid and uninformed discrimination.
The wireless emergency alert (WEA) system is limited to only 90 characters per message and cannot push images or website links to phones, hence the suggestion to confirm the suspect’s photo with outside sources. From the text itself, tens of millions of people received the equivalent of a digital wanted poster asking them to be on the lookout for any man with a Middle Eastern name rather than any definitive identifying characteristics. By sending the message the NYPD risked casting unnecessary suspicion on thousands of Muslim New Yorkers. The limited technical capabilities of the WEA system make using it in a manhunt like this one incredibly risky. Social media platforms were far more effective at getting an actual portrait of Rahami to most New Yorkers.
By the end of Monday, most news organizations across the city and country already had the picture and description the NYPD tweeted. Police actually found Rahami from a photo they posted online, not because of the emergency alert. These specific descriptions accompanied by actual photos carry a much smaller risk of potentially demonizing thousands of completely innocent people. There needs to be ways of spreading information that do not in turn spread hate.
In the wake of such attacks we have to make sure our fear of the unknown does not push us to persecute people by racial profiling. Countries such as France and Germany have already seen their citizens take out embarrassing levels of fear-fueled actions, be it the rise of parties and movements expressly dedicated to preventing the integration of Muslims into Europe or forcing women to do things like to strip at gunpoint because of cultural tension. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not immune to these overreactions, as the nation has seen hate crimes against Muslims reach an all-time high.
In light of these incidents, it would be prudent to keep a cool head in the aftermath of any similar event, lest we use our most base instincts to identify and persecute any perceived other. Terrorism seeks to exhaust our reason and goad us into acting against our own values. We must never allow fear to drive us to take bigoted actions against our fellow citizens. In the wake of terror, we must stay united, not divided.
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Email Shiva Darshan at [email protected]