I have come to dread weeks like the last one in Washington, when security measures -- and people's anxieties -- are heightened. Call it paranoia if you will, but for an Arab Muslim man like me, life in the nation's capital sometimes seems like a trial of wits, pitting my own against what I imagine the prevailing fears to be.
That realization came to me after a false alarm at the Pentagon Metro station set bells ringing in my head -- and I think there's a message for all of us in what didn't happen that day. It was Dec. 6, and I had left my office at the National Press Building early, around 11 a.m., to take the Metro home. I planned, as usual, to take the Blue Line from Metro Center through the Pentagon to Franconia-Springfield station and from there take the bus to Rolling Valley Mall in Burke, where I park. While waiting at Metro Center, I heard a muffled loudspeaker announcement alerting riders that the Pentagon Metro station was closed because of an "emergency."
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After I boarded the train, there was a further announcement, saying "this train will not, repeat, will not, go to the Pentagon." The first thing that came to my mind was, "Oh no, not again!" I remembered 9/11, and I panicked.
Forgive me for my reaction. Under other circumstances, I might have asked fellow passengers for more information, but when two black riders started theorizing about a terrorist attack, I was scared that I might raise suspicions. Since coming to the United States from Sudan more than 30 years ago, I have often felt flattered by a special friendliness from American blacks, in spite of my continued difficulty in understanding their accent and getting involved in their culture. But since 9/11, I have sensed uneasiness among strangers, both black and white, when they surmise from my name or accent that I might be Muslim and Arab. So I remained silent. I quickly left the train at the next station, McPherson Square, and changed to the Orange Line to go to Vienna.
I hoped to leave my worries behind on the next steps of my journey -- a bus ride from Vienna to George Mason University and a taxi on to Burke. But on the bus, I overheard three passengers -- GMU students, I guessed -- expounding theories about an "attack on the Pentagon." I heard them say that "terrorists had hijacked a Metro train" and that "terrorists exploded a chemical bomb under the Pentagon." The clear implication was that Muslims were involved.
When the taxi arrived and the driver turned out to be a Muslim immigrant from West Africa, I eagerly asked him about what had happened at the Pentagon. He didn't know, and when I told him what I had heard, he minimized my fears, saying it was probably just a scare. He acknowledged, though, the issue of "Islamophobia," which he argued is not only a problem in the United States, but in other parts of the world as well, including Africa. When the driver dropped me at Burke, a full three hours after I had left the office, I immediately turned on my car radio. I heard that the Pentagon Metro station had been reopened and that the whole scare was from pepper spray.
Pepper spray? That was what had shut down the station, creating the emergency -- and my panic? An Arab friend reached me on my cell phone, wondering why I had not answered earlier calls. I told him that I had not wanted to speak openly in Arabic because of the attack-on-the-Pentagon-that-turned-out-to-be-pepper-spray.
We laughed and then lamented my story. He joked that I would have panicked more if I had "Middle Eastern features." But we agreed that it was a sad reflection on the overall atmosphere of fear in America after Sept. 11, 2001. There are fears among Muslims, too: Those in America, especially those of us born overseas, are afraid of being accused of terrorism; those in Muslim countries are afraid of America's heavy military hand.
My friend told me more soberly that he believed this situation would last "forever." As a reporter for more than 40 years who covered the Vietnam War, I am a little more optimistic. I have seen how time can heal divisions. In some sense, as I am getting older, I am becoming more American, more Arab, more African and more Muslim. I see myself becoming closer to Christians and whites, after recognizing that this civilization, at its roots, is Christian and white and after almost 30 years of marriage to a white Christian American. I have taken our three biracial children to mosques, churches, synagogues, Hindu and Buddhist temples. I know that I can absorb differences and make them part of who I am. My family is a living example of that.
Since 9/11, I have written scores of stories that are in some way inspired by the fear that has engulfed this, the greatest nation in the history of mankind. I have listened with a mixture of concern and amusement to messages on the Metro about watching for "suspicious bags and suspicious behaviors." Yet, I've found myself becoming uncomfortable when I've read about Metro police officers being trained to use new behavioral profiling techniques as they patrol subway stations, seeking to identify suspect riders. Much as I appreciate the need for added security at airports, I can't help feeling singled out sometimes; during my last two plane trips I noticed "SSS" marked on my boarding passes and realized that the coding explained why I had been so elaborately searched.
All those thoughts were coursing through my mind on the day of the Pentagon incident. I learned that WTOP radio had reported the incident throughout the day, and NewsChannel 8 had shown a video of its correspondent outside the Pentagon. He had talked about "scary moments" and about a police officer wearing a gas mask and "screaming at us to drive to the opposite direction." The correspondent added that "understandably terrorist-sensitive emergency officials moved to investigate." That helped me to understand the GMU students' comments.
But I am left wondering: Does the rush to issue warnings and set in motion emergency security measures help people prepare for new attacks, or cause them to panic? I can't tell you for sure. Mine, after all, is a story of what happens when nothing happens, except for heightened security and jangled nerves. I still ask myself: Had I, an urbane, cosmopolitan, international, open-minded, 62-year-old journalist, overreacted? Clearly I had. But only because the security systems had done so. That evening, the news reported the Pentagon evacuation had been caused not even by pepper spray, but by cleaning agents that activated a chemical sensor setting off the alarms -- in the station, in the city and in my head.
Mohammad Ali Salih is the Washington correspondent for the Saudi-owned London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.