Sure, people assume that my blonde hair means I’m dumb. And I am 47% more likely to get skin cancer than somebody with dark hair, but still I thank god, because if I was a “person of color” in America right now, I might be jacked up.
Just like three Muslim medical students were jacked up in Florida last week, after a citizen snitch eavesdropped on their innocent mealtime conversation at a Georgia restaurant, thought she heard them talking about 9-11, and then called in the terror police.
The three guys were driving to a Florida medical training hospital, when they stopped at a Shoney’s Restaurant in the tiny hamlet of Calhoun, Georgia.
That was their first mistake. Calhoun, Georgia is in a part of the country where blacks were lynched until just a few years ago, where rednecks gather with chain saws, hoods, crosses, and white robes, where local police make sport of stopping every goddam hippie van, or convertible with a babe in it, that comes through.
Any person who studies American history would know that Muslims might not be welcome in Calhoun, and any smart med student should know that Shoney’s food can cause severe gastric distress.
Yep, the trio of Muslim med boys made a mistake stopping there, even though one of them was a native-born American citizen, another a naturalized citizen and the third had a valid visa.
But Kambiz Butt, 25, Ayman Gheith, 27, and Omar Choudhary, 23 didn’t know well enough that this is the “New Normalcy America,” as Dick Cheney describes it, the one where John Ashcroft begs citizens to spy on each other.
The kind of America where a good ole girl like fellow Shoney’s customer Eunice Stone sees young Muslim men, one of them with a very long beard and skull cap, and thinks, “Oh praise ye my Lord Jesus, here’s my chance to catch Osama bin Laden and get me that 25 million dollar reward.”
So Eunice eavesdropped on the boys. She couldn’t really hear what they were saying, but she heard the number 11, and then, 13, and then the word Miami. Their voices were scary, so Arab, so foreign. And that Osama beard. Was Miami in danger of being attacked by these three? What was a good woman to do?
In her pea brain, Eunice heard the voice of her master, Ashcroft. It sounded like the voice of Jehovah. She got up from her seat, and wrote down tag numbers from the two cars the men were driving. Then she called police.
A few hours later, the Butt boys found themselves held at gunpoint by police on Interstate 75 in the Everglades. Hungry alligators drooled nearby.
A battle squadron of police, robots, dogs and counterterrorism experts moved in. The interstate was closed for 17 hours, causing massive traffic jams.
Miami media outlets and officials woofed off about the incident, scaring little children by speculating out loud that Miami might be in imminent danger.
The boys were forced to answer question after question, while officers in spacesuits, bomb-sniffing dogs and robots searched their cars.
The dogs supposedly smelled explosives. Everybody got real tense. Hands trembled. One of the boy’s backpacks was taken from his car, and blown up by the bomb squad.
Later on, after the med students had been interrogated without attorneys and scared out of their wits, Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) officer E.J. Picolo confirmed that the guys had actually not had any explosives.
Other officials admitted that the students were not terrorists, but they weren’t apologizing for what the mainstream media termed “the inconvenience that the men went through.”
Some brainwashed hick at a restaurant accuses you of being a terrorist, and you are held and questioned against your will at gunpoint for almost an entire day, and cops blow up your backpack, and thousands of people have to sit in traffic or drive hundreds of miles out of their way, and that’s only an inconvenience?
Hell yes, and don’t expect any apologies either, Butt boys.
“If this was a hoax, they will be charged,” said Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter, who praised Florida’s new anti-terror federal-state-local police network.
“This was a job very well done,” said Florida Governor Jeb Bush, grateful that the incident had replaced headlines about his daughter Noelle, who is being described by fellow patients at a drug treatment center, and by some media pundits, as a privileged crackhead.
“If this is a hoax,” Bush said, “it is my hope that they will be prosecuted.”
“I commend state and local authorities for their alertness,” said Florida Democratic Senator Bob Graham, “and I especially commend the actions of the private citizen in Calhoun who reported this suspicious activity to the proper authorities. This is exactly the kind of citizen involvement that this war on terrorism is going to require as we seek to protect our homeland.”
During media interviews, Stone coyly flirted with the role of snitch heroine, saying she thought the Muslim med students might have been playing a trick on her, and that she didn’t want to be famous, really, she didn’t.
“We hesitated to call anyone because we thought, they’re just playing us,” she said. “But then I thought, what’s the right thing to do? If it turns out it’s nothing, then it’s nothing I hope I haven’t done something wrong. I hope I haven’t caused someone problems, but at the same time I thought what if they really are doing something and I caught them?”
FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore gave Stone an appreciative pat on the proverbial rump.
“Just think if we could get every American to do that, then every town would be safe,” he crooned. “The time is long past when anyone can utter threats about taking things down. That’s not a joking matter. I don’t care how it was intended or understood.”
The public should damn right report suspicious activities and let police decide what’s important, he said. Just report everything you see, dammit. Especially if it involves Arabic dudes in skull caps and long beards. People who are tempted to play pranks should “think about it before you do it,” he warned, adding that “I don’t think anyone was racially profiled by anyone.”
Of course not, nobody is racial profiled in America. It is the land of freedom and justice for all, right?
Try telling that to Butt and his buddies.
“We’re medical students. We are not terrorists,” Butt said after the incident. “Our concern in life is to become doctors. We want to help people. We do not want to hurt. Not once did we mention 9/11. Not once did we mention anything about 9/13, nor did we joke about anything of that sort. The lady was probably just eavesdropping on our conversation and might have heard a few key words that she misconstrued.”
Oh well, it’s only an inconvenient mistake, except that the Miami hospital where the three were headed for training has now said that the students aren’t welcome anymore.
When I heard about this “inconvenience,” I contacted some Arab friends whose son Seleem is a hard-working medical student in the American South.
“We’re wishing right now that we hadn’t named him Seleem,” his mother said. “I wish we could change his first name and last name, but he won’t do that. I tell him, ‘Make sure you shave close, and do everything you can to not look Arab.'”
Seleem used to work at a medical laboratory. The Jewish security guard said to him every morning after September 11th, “Hey, Osama, how’s my man the terrorist today.”
“I don’t know anything about Osama; how’s Ariel Sharon?” Seleem responded, referring to the current leader of Israel who has been accused of committing war crimes and atrocities against innocent civilians in Lebanon in the 1980’s, and who is now continuing that fine tradition in the West Bank and Gaza.
Now Seleem watches what he says, and notices that people treat him like shit a little more often than they used to.
“9-11 changed everything,” he says. “It brought out a bad side of people. I’m nothing more than an exhausted student whose dad is good at making delicious Middle Eastern food, but now I have to worry about what some fool might say or do to me.”
Is any of this a big surprise? For years, African-Americans have had their own special category of traffic crime: DWB.
That means: Driving While Black.
Miami Dolphins Heisman Trophy winner and running back Ricky Williams, and dozens of other rich black athletes like him, experience what less affluent blacks go through every day.
Quoted in a hard-hitting Rick Reilly article in the August 12, 2002 Sports Illustrated, the dreadlock-wearing Williams describes how cops pull him over “for no other reason than I am a black man driving an expensive car.”
When he flies in the first class cabin, airplane attendants always hassle him, assuming that he ought to be sitting in the cheap seats.
Reilly writes that, “Williams has started taking the long way to work so he doesn’t have to drive past the police station. Other [wealthy black athletes]just give up and drive crappy cars.”
But many pot smokers already drive crappy cars, and that doesn’t prevent them from getting pulled over.
I have a Volkswagen Van, 1989 vintage. I get pulled over no matter how slow I am going.
“You’re driving a hippie van, mister,” one cop said apologetically after he saw my short blonde hair and incorrectly assumed that I was not a hippie at heart. “You gonna get stopped more often than a horny boy on his first date. I was you, I’d get rid of this van. You ain’t the dead one in the Grateful Dead, are ya?”
No, sadly, I am not.
But at least I can proudly say I am guilty of the new crime in the New America.
It’s something all Americans might be guilty of at one time or another: Driving While Human.
At least they didn’t blow up my backpack!