Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
A decade after 9/11, Gallup released a 132-page report about Muslim-Americans. Ninety-three percent of them believe that Muslims here are loyal to the US. And eighty-one percent say that it is not possible to profile a terrorist. I had my own profiling experience. As a nineteen year old Bangladeshi-American Muslim who grew up in NoVA, America’s suburban mecca of diversity and spent too much time in History class learning about the Bill of Rights, I never really got how paranoid and hurt New Yorkers still are. What happened to me could’ve easily happened to anybody with my naivete; Brevik proved that the next religious nut to kill a bunch of people could be any color.
When Obama came to Manhattan, because the passengers on the Metro North called a bomb threat on me for going to the bathroom. Well, not exactly; I made a big mistake, an easy one to make. Nobody reserves seats on the Metro North: not shift nurses going to Fordham, not the 18-hour workday, beleaguered Keynesites on Water St. Nobody.
It had been a long day at French Culinary Institute. I was two weeks away from graduating, and the chefs were putting pressure on us. We cooked for the restaurant and practiced for the final. I was so tired by the end of class that I could barely make it on my train. By the time I got there, almost every seat was taken. Unlike a lot of students, I was 19 and didn’t have prior restaurant experience, so I brought my whole kit with me to school and back so I could practice more. It wasn’t fun to carry a full load of equipment all the way to my family’s home in Westchester.
I finally found a seat that would accommodate my bag and slumped into it. Then I needed to use the restroom, which was on the other side of the car. I did not want to carry it all the way there, so I left it on the seat because I figured no one would want to steal anything that heavy. Five minutes later, when I came back, I could feel that something was different. Everyone was staring at me.
Now look: I’m Bangladeshi. Most of the Indian restaurants in New York are actually owned by Bangladeshis. I’d seen Bangladeshi traffic policemen, Bangladeshi teachers, even a Bangladeshi-American congressman, Hansen Clarke. As far as I’m concerned, I may as well be Joe Schmo.
4:25 came and went, and the train was still on the platform. An old black guy in a trenchcoat right next to me asked if that was my bag. I said yes. He said that I shouldn’t have left my bag on that seat, it could give people the wrong impression. That people had thought that I had gotten off the train. “You understand right?” he asked. I didn’t. He said that people thought that there was a bomb in my bag, so someone had called the MTA police. I lost my temper a little bit and told him that I did not understand, and in fact that I was quite offended. On the speaker the conductor confirmed it. The train was delayed because of a security threat and that NYPD and MTA police were coming on board and canvassing the train car by car.
They didn’t have to, I wasn’t going to move. There was one officer, tall, well built and shaven headed, and an MTA man, both white. The policeman asked me whether this was my bag. I said yes. “What’s in it?” asked the MTA man. I told him it was my culinary kit with knives and equipment. Someone gasped and asked whether knives were allowed on the train. The MTA guy grabbed me by the shoulder and said quite loudly in front of all the other passengers “Alright you’re taking the next train”. I had never been so scared in my life. Here I was, unshaven, the wrong color, getting pulled out of a train because I might be a terrorist threat. I thought about Maher Arar. I thought about Jean Charles de Menzes. I was being ridiculous but could see the next ten years of torture and detention in front of me. Bright lighted interrogation rooms, waterboarding, and pop music torture.
The MTA man stood by as the officer opened up my bag. Inside was my knife bag and a dirty uniform. It smelled like body odor and the kitchen I’d been in all day. He opened up one of the zippers of the knife kit and looked inside. I stood to the side and tried to smile and act natural, but my shoulders were at my ears. As he opened the zipper and reached his hand inside I prayed that he wouldn’t cut his hands. Sure enough, inside was a school-issue Mercer chef’s knife, set of three Wusthof paring knives, and several tools including a spatula, two peelers and two different wooden spoons. He shook his head and turned to me.
“Don’t leave your bag on the train”, he said. I nodded. He took down my driver’s license number and address and then radioed for the dog. The K-9 officer led his Malinois over to my bag. He sniffed it for a few seconds and then walked away, sat down, and whined. The NYPD officer turned to me and said “sorry”. He told me that it was a required procedure, and that I should not have left my bag on the seat, even if I was just going to the bathroom. He said that nowadays you couldn’t be too careful. Then he said “You understand right?” I still didn’t but this time I kept it to myself.
They let me go and I took the next train home. I felt kind of humiliated that this happened to me. Sure, it was just a screening, a routing procedure. It’d been ten years. Hell, my dad was supposed to be there that morning (He missed his flight out of DC, another bit of suspicion that demagogues pass around and attribute generally to their hated demographics). I’d put my bag down (it said International Culinary Center on the side, and I haven’t heard of any terrorist chefs) and walked to the bathroom on the other side of the car. All it was caused by was an overfilled bladder, kitchen equipment, and my fellow New Yorkers, saying something about seeing something.