New York City is a scary place. I recall stories of people falling through those less-than-stable sidewalk grates whenever I leave the apartment. Bicyclists have nearly collided with me countless times. Even the souvlaki can be suspect. These are fears we accept. We push them out of our minds and just cram ourselves onto an overstuffed subway train and hope for the best. Daily. Until this past weekend, fears worse than toxic street meat and grate paranoia seem to have faded from the minds of Get-Out-Of-My-Fucking-Way-You–Fucking-Fuck New Yorkers.
As I smooshed onto an uptown 6 the Monday morning after the Times Square bombing attempt I couldn’t help but experience the fear that people all over this city must feel. I kept thinking to myself, "Is someone going to kill me today?" As if on cue, my fear antennae perked up as I stood next to a young bearded and turbaned man that I’ve been taught to fear by 24-hour news channels over the last 9 years. What makes today different is that today he could easily be looking at me and feeling his own fear antennae tingling.
Suspected Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad doesn’t have a long beard. He doesn’t wear a turban. In fact, he’s an American citizen. Suddenly the old stereotypes don’t apply. While I am repulsed at the idea that we have collectively identified this racist image with the face of terrorism, I must admit that it has helped calm my fears that I myself would not be looked at as a suspicious character.
The time immediately after the attacks of September 11th, 2001 allowed unbearded, unturbaned American-accented brown-skinned people like me to think, “Hey, no one is going to randomly take their anti-Islamic revenge on me. I don’t look the part. My voice sounds like I was raised on generous helpings of Cheers and Seinfeld.” I must be honest - before the picture of Faisal Shahzad was released I found myself crossing my fingers and saying to myself, “Please make him look really fundamentalist-y! Come on big long beard! Come on turban! Come on really long name with Mohammed and some “Al-somethings” thrown in!”
Yes, I know I’m a horrible person for hoping that his image would fall neatly into a stereotype that safely excludes me. In the end, nothing like that came true. However, before you stop reading, please allow me to explain:
While there has not been a domestic terrorist attack with the size or scope of 9/11, it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. As a result, just like every other non-brown person in New York City, we are afraid too. We look out through the same panicked eyes. However, for us there is an additional fear of what will happen to us on the street and in the subway as the profile for suspected terrorists continues to become less strictly defined. We are afraid of the potential for thoughtless, irrational revenge against anyone who even remotely looks the part. As we saw this weekend, appearance, facility with language, and citizenship are no longer usable criteria. As in the case of former Army Major Dr. Nidal Hasan in the Fort Hood shootings, education level and societal position are meaningless indices as well. With these events over the last 9 years I have felt my appearance move from the “safe” profile to the “suspicious” profile alarmingly quickly. I’ll never forget when I was 14 years-old and having my next-door neighbor’s mother tell me to go back to my own country after I ran across her lawn to get to the soccer field. That was 1995. Can you imagine where she’d tell me to go now?
As I suspect that the terrorist stereotype will continue to change to include a wider and wider swath of citizens and non-citizens, I have one request: let’s abandon the terrorist stereotype image entirely. We might as well because soon there won’t even be a shadowy stereotype to which people can cling. Soon there will be no image to shape and reshape because perpetrators will look, sound and could essentially be anyone. After all, this is a war with no uniforms, no skin color, and no flags. While I can’t even begin to present a solution to domestic terrorism, I know that xenophobic/racist fears only serve to divide and weaken us as a city and country in general. These fears do nothing to promote peace and do everything to promote violence and intimidation. I realize this is easier said than done. Even I find myself using it, especially when I’m afraid like I was after this past weekend. In the aftermath of an event like this weekend, history has demonstrated that violent hate crimes tend to climb. If we can work to banish this image as soon as possible, maybe we can avoid some completely senseless violence.
There are a million things to be afraid of in New York. Being afraid of each other should not be one of them.