Yvonne Abraham

A loss of decency

Missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi.
AP Photo/Brown University, File
Missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi.

There is far more to Sunil Tripathi than the missing man ensnared by wild speculation after the ­Marathon bombings.

“Sunil is my baby brother,” said Sangeeta Tripathi. The philosophy student was quiet, brilliant, kind, and patient. He followed his older siblings to Brown University and excelled there. He played saxophone. He liked jazz. He loved sharing meals and political debates with his family.

Sangeeta spoke about 22-year-old Sunil on Tuesday afternoon, 37 days after he disappeared. A couple of hours later, a Brown rowing coach spotted a body in the Providence River, and the family began an agonizing wait to learn if it was him. On Thursday morning came the awful news: It was Sunil.


Before he disappeared, Sunil was going through something tough. Just over a year ago, he took an academic leave, his sister said. He stayed close to campus, reading, playing in a local chess club. He was in constant touch with his parents, in Radnor, Pa., and others. The night he disappeared, he talked to his grandmother and texted with his aunt.

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The whole family dropped everything to join the search in Providence. They marshaled friends and relatives to help raise Sunil’s profile. He would not be just another missing person. They came up with a “Lend Your Hand” campaign, in which people would write messages to Sunil on their palms and post the pictures, in case he could see them.

The people who love Sunil were beyond worn down when bombers struck the ­Marathon on April 15th. Out of respect, they put the campaign on hold. They could not have imagined what would come next.

The onslaught began around 7 p.m. Thursday. Pictures of the bombers had been released. Some in the legions of online speculators suggested that suspect 2 looked like Sunil. Twitter blew up after somebody claimed they’d heard his name on a police scanner.

Already, three innocent people had been publicly implicated in the bombing, though not by name: An injured Saudi kid fleeing the blast, tackled because he looked like . . . a Saudi kid; a Morocco-born high school athlete and his friend, whose pictures were splashed on the front page of the proudly appalling New York Post.


Sunil’s parents were hysterical, Sangeeta said. The family gathered to view the FBI images of the bombers, confirming what they already knew: The hair, the face, the walk of the man eventually identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were nothing like ­Sunil’s.

They froze the Facebook page they had launched for Sunil’s search and tried to avoid social media. They attempted a game of Scrabble. Sangeeta got 58 calls between 3 and 4 a.m. Some reporters left polite messages, but not all: “This is your one opportunity to save your brother’s life,” Sangeeta recalled one saying.

Who are these people? What if Sunil, ­already bereft, was out there, seeing this?

On Friday morning, when the names of the bombers emerged, Sangeeta and the others decided to try to use the immense wrong done to her brother to bring more attention to the search.

On Tuesday, I asked her if she was angry. “There’s no room for anger,” she said. “Our love for Sunny trumps everything else.”


In a perfect world, those who played this identity game would take a hard look at what happened to Sunil and the others ­after the bombings. They would acknowledge the coarseness and insensitivity of their assumptions. They would learn from the recklessness of those pronouncements on Twitter and Reddit.

This is not a perfect world. Soon after the still-unidentified body was pulled from the river, Twitter exploded again. Many ­users asserted that Sunil was dead, some hiding behind headlines in the UK Daily Mail and elsewhere that, without evidence, said just that.

As far as they were concerned, Sunil was gone already. So was decency.

For the Tripathi family, Sunil will never be gone. In our rush, should it be so hard to remember that?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

This story has been updated to note the discovery of Sunil Tripathi’s body Thursday morning.