You Understand, Right?

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.


  1. I’m really sorry you had to deal with this, it’s awful and not at all fair. 9/11 really has scarred so many people, especially New Yorkers. Rationally, they know that it’s racist and senseless to racially profile, but they just can’t shake their tendency to do so, no matter how progressive, fair-minded, and enlightened they otherwise are. Such significant trauma does bizarre things to fragile human psyches.
    I regularly take Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian and Keystone lines to and from New York, and have never thought twice about leaving my large, heavy bag (full with my laptop, books, and other odds and ends), on my seat while I use the restroom. In fact, I do it pretty often. I guess no one else has ever thought twice about it either, because no one’s ever so much as thrown a concerned look my way upon my return, let alone alerted the police and halted the train during my brief absence. Of note: I’m a young white female. There’s a privilege to which I’ll never be blind again.

    What happened to you probably could have happened to anybody (it honestly isn’t smart to leave a bag unattended, but when the bathroom’s right there and the bag’s so big and heavy…), but unfortunately it really was much more likely to happen to a male with brown skin. How much time is necessary for the healing of those wounds left by 9/11, the ones that drive even the most fair-minded people to pay no mind to a white female leaving her bag momentarily unattended, but to raise an urgent red flag at the sight of any male person of color doing just the same?

  2. Omar, you write beautifully and thoughtfully. If your culinary skills are as good you should be a great cookbook writer!

  3. I am very sorry that you feel discriminated against and humiliated; nobody should ever have to feel that way because of the color of their skin. On the flip side I cannot say that I blame these New Yorkers for their actions. Upon my return from Italy in a recent vacation, while walking through customs I happened by a carry-on bag unattended. People were staring at the bag and whispering to one another when finally a man spoke up and asked who’s bag it was; when no one responded, he asked one of the customs people to call security. It happened to belong to somebody who was too lazy to carry it on the long lines that passport control in America tends to have. Was the guy over paranoid? Probably. But what if he had been right, and there was something in the bag?

    I by no means agree with someone being profiled, but if someone seems sketchy I tend to watch them, regardless of their skin color. If someone seems anxious and gets up in a hurry to go somewhere and leaves their bag, I’m liable to start to sweat a bit whether they be black, white, brown, whatever. Again, I’m sorry that you feel as though you’ve been discriminated against, but in today’s world you have to be vigilant; the price of that vigilance, sometimes, is someone’s toes getting stepped on.

  4. I wonder what the stats are for preventing bomb attacks resulting from citizen vigilance that Mr. X describes. Is the Homeland Security right in asking people to “see something, say something?”

    • It does sound a tad “1984”-ish doesn’t it? As far as the stats go, I honestly have no idea. But stats can be misleading. How do you take into account the deterrence that heightened security/awareness have brought? America’s enemies are soldiers of a different sort nowadays, the ones that look like you and I. I am by no means saying that Omar was not racially profiled; maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Could it have just been someone skittish after seeing a person take off in a hurry, leaving a large/heavy bag on a train (yes, to the bathroom, but put yourself in their shoes)? The question of whether it is right or wrong to ask “see something, say something” is a difficult one to answer right now. Ten years down the line the history books may say, “America took the proper steps to ensure the protection of its citizens during war-time.” They may also very well write, “America edged closer to totalitarianism and fanned the flame of racism through programs that made Americans increasingly paranoid of one another.” Growing up in line of sight to New York City and the Towers, I can honestly say I’d rather be safe than sorry. But Omar raises an excellent point that we must also be careful not to take our vigilance too far, i.e. racial profiling. It is a tough balance, but one that we should strive for.

  5. Balance is indeed laudable. However, we need to be careful what we’re trying to balance in the first place. Morality based on religion (fear of god, whatever) and a set of laws have failed to completely curb out injustice/violence on innocents. We still need the presence of police on the beat to make people behave. To me, that is a good case for maintaining balance to effect progress.

    To this day, certain societies manage theft using draconian measures like cutting off a limb of the thief. Such tactics may be effective but as a civilized society should we resort to them to keep the peace? Which method to use to keep peace-loving citizens from becoming victims of wanton violence is still an open question but my gut feeling tells me reporting on “suspicious” activities is a highly inefficient way to go about it.

    • This may be true, but when it is the only option you have, efficiency cannot really be taken into account. I think relating increased vigilance to the practice of dismembering thieves is a tad over the top. Wanton violence does not regularly occur against Muslims in the United States. The cold hard truth is that we have no other option but to be vigilant. I agree, it is not the best option, but it is the only one on the table. If there is a better one, I am all ears.

  6. One of the reasons wanton violence against Muslims is not common in the US is because of the high degree of religious tolerance in this country. Such violence spiked somewhat after 9/11 but was quickly curbed. The curbing occurred not through increased vigilance of the type you are describing but through civic discourse and reminding people that beating up people just because they share a faith with the hijackers is counterproductive and goes against the grain of the foundations of a civilized society.

    Imagine the situation if people were told to watch for suspicious behavior amongst fundamentalist Christians following the Oklahoma bombing. Major historical threats to the American way of life perpetrated by, e.g., Pearl Harbor and communism were met with policy choices that proved to be misguided. There is almost no evidence to demonstrate that locking up Japanese-Americans and destroying the careers of left-leaning Hollywood producers did anything to defeat Japan in WWII or tame communism in late 20th century. Far from being the “only option” as Mr. X suggests, “see something, say something” is a feel good strategy that empowers common folk to bring out their baser instincts and ultimately makes us less civilized. And that is precisely the goal of such entities as Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

    • Both analogies do not work in this case. The danger presented by Russia and Japan in the Cold War and World War II, respectively, was not terrorism, but rather spying (even though the threat during the Cold War was very real i.e. the Rosenburgs, Klaus, etc.). Americans did not have to worry about people blowing themselves up in the manner that extremists (regardless of their religion/ethnicity) tend to favor. You are trying to make this about race, while I simply am saying that anything out of the ordinary, regardless of who does it, should be watched carefully. Civic discourse will not stop people from planting bombs, blowing themselves up, or shooting up a kids camp. There will always be those people in society who are intolerant, the people that do get violent and go after a minority group just because. The rest of us, the ones who realize that not all of “them”, be they a religious group or ethnic group, are like the crazy ones, still should watch out for things out of the ordinary. We live in the era of global terrorism, it is a reality. The goal of groups like al Qaeda is not to make the West less civilized, it is to destroy the West literally, not figuratively. The government’s approach of “see something, say something” is hardly a witch hunt, nor is it anything at all like the internment of Japanese immigrants and US citizens in World War II. Do you therefore suggest that by simply playing nice, the nice terrorists will simply stop blowing up metros, airports, buses, and buildings around the world? The only answer to combating global terrorism is a change in US policy in the Middle East, as well as confronting domestic extremism (in any form), but that is another debate entirely. If we cannot be vigilant, what should we be? The Times Square bomb plot was stopped because citizens noticed something funny and called the police. The bomb plot on the flight from Yemen or wherever around Christmas was stopped because passengers noted a man was trying to light his shoes on fire. To not be vigilant is to invite catastrophe.

  7. With all due respect, I wasn’t trying to turn this into a racist issue. Instead, I provided the religious and ethnic allusions to imagine a different perspective. Regarding WWII and the Cold War: Mr X, are you seriously asserting that a nation should resort to interment camps (which by the way was indeed racist since German-Americans were not locked up) and destroying careers to preempt spying? I agree with you that the goal of groups like Al Qaeda is not just to make the West less civilized (it’s only a first step) but to destroy it. However, isn’t that what we are trying to do to them? I happen to believe that Al Qaeda and its philosophy has no place in the modern world. The question is how to convince the rest of the world of that without losing our own fundamental moral values?

    Taking a firm stand and being on guard with a military and police force (I support both) is not “playing nice.” We should be vigilant, not advocate vigilante justice – there is an essential difference. BTW, the Times Square bombing was unsuccessful because of sheer incompetence of Mr. Faisal Shahzad.

    • I never asserted anything like that. Never in anything I have said on this blog have I asserted anything like that at all. In regard to that, I believe you misunderstood the meaning behind what I was saying about World War II. The Japanese threat to America was an external, not internal one. Japanese living in the United States were more patriotic about America than some Americans were. And as far as the Senate hearings that took place in the 50s and the Red Scare were definitely a mistake, I was only stating that the threat behind communists in America working for the USSR was a very real one. I have not advocated vigilante justice either. A person calling the police because of suspicious activity is not vigilante justice. That is what I have been advocating. People being smart is not a crime, nor is it morally wrong. If you agree that this type of vigilance is ok, we are essentially arguing about nothing then because we agree 🙂 And to answer your question. –> “Thanks to alert New Yorkers and professional police officers we avoided what could have been a very deadly event.” – Mayor Bloomberg on what happened in NY. A street vendor saw the car begin to smoke and told the police = vigilance. Regardless of whether it was a botched attempt, people need to be on the lookout. That is all I am saying.

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