I fly frequently-across the United States, across the Atlantic. Over the last few years, I have flown from New York to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to London, from London to Beirut countless times. I have never worried or felt fear.
But this time was different. The man and his son had sparked suspicion in me. I found myself listening to their conversation. Something troubled me, but I wasn't sure what-so I decided to monitor them. I understand Arabic. If something was up, I would know.
Maybe it was the harrowing details of the September 11 Commission Report released before my departure. Reading transcripts of passengers' conversations with loved ones during the last minutes of the hijacked planes had made my stomach turn. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a graduate student in New York City. I had seen the smoke billowing from the two towers that I had used as my compass in the city--and I saw them collapse.
Or maybe it was the security alerts issued in the days before I left Los Angeles-we're at a yellow alert, orange alert. No, wait-we're back at yellow. No, orange. Or the incessant talk of an "imminent attack."
Soon after take-off, the older man got up and took out a cell phone. My heart started beating faster. Strange behavior?
I paused, then turned around and spoke to them. "Cell phones aren't allowed in the middle of the flights," I told him in Arabic.
He was surprised. Maybe I was the one who was acting strange. After all, I had been watching them through the corner of my eye, listening to them over the whispers or passengers and announcements over the loud speaker.
"Yes, I know. We are not using them. Where are you from?"
"I am originally Syrian," I said.
He replied with a smile.
We spoke briefly. By then, I was calm, but troubled. I--an American Muslim, an Arab-American, a Syrian-American--had felt suspicious of my own people. Was I guilty of profiling- of accusing innocents of "Flying While Arab"?
We all understand because we know the perpetrators of 9/11 came from among us. Yet as an Arab and Muslim-American who lives at the moment in the Arab world, I see growing anti-Americanism not only among extremists, but also among ordinary people, among moderates.
I know why Arabs and Muslims are angry-all you have to do is read the newspapers and watch the news unfolding every day in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. In the eyes of the Arabs and Muslims, America speaks of freedom and democracy, but disregards justice in the Arab world. Our support of Israel and Ariel Sharon, a man equated in Arabs' minds with the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian camps in 1982, alienates many in the Arab world. We invaded Iraq, a sovereign country, on a false premise of weapons of mass destruction. Under U.S. occupation and in the name of freedom, we then subjected Iraqis to torture in the Abu Ghraib prison.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, the vague threat of "imminent attacks" makes Americans all the more paranoid. We hear about threats to specific cities, even buildings. But all we can do is wait to see what will happen next. We are in the dark.
So the fear is natural. But what level of profiling is reasonable in responding to that fear? And how do we protect the narrow gulf between realistic profiling and dangerous stereotyping?
Many Arab-American and Muslim-Americans are torn about profiling. I know I am. On one hand, I don't think profiling that simply takes an extra hard look at Arab-looking travelers does enough to protect us. Muslims come in all colors-Arab, Asian, white, black. If the terrorists want to get us, they can find someone who does not fit the Arab, Muslim profile.
But while I fear our continuing vulnerability, what I fear most is the loss of our nation's civil liberties, of our freedoms. I am upset every time I meet an Arab in the Middle East who says he or she does not want to visit the United States anymore because of the stories they have heard about how Arabs are being treated, because of the Patriot Act. Most of all, I fear the huge rift that is forming between the United States and the Muslim world.