SCMP Saturday, September 29, 2001
Suspicion becomes the enemy within
KNIGHT RIDDER in San Jose, California
Confronted by an enemy they cannot see, many Americans are seeing potential enemies everywhere. Riding to work in an elevator, boarding a plane or a subway train, they are accompanied by a new companion, a spectre that has not been part of national life for at least two generations: suspicion.
Small things that would have gone unnoticed two weeks ago now turn heads. It could be the man clutching his briefcase a little too tightly, the strange-looking delivery truck that might hold a bomb. Or it could be people who look Middle Eastern.
Across the country, citizens who would not normally categorise people by race are doing something police departments have been denounced for in the past: racial profiling.
Their suspicions are usually expressed, if at all, through body language or anxious speech, but these reactions are contributing to a growing ethnic tension in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
In Minneapolis, three passengers who appeared to be from the Middle East were taken off a Northwest Airlines flight last week because their fellow passengers were afraid they might be hijackers.
At San Jose International Airport on Thursday, members of a softball team travelling to Michigan for their world championships, were talking about looking for potential hijackers when they boarded the plane.
"It's unfortunate, but we'd be looking at ethnic background," said Todd Stone. But he did realise not all Middle Eastern people were involved in terrorism, he said.
Many others say they are uncomfortable that their suspicions are centred on Middle Eastern-looking people. But they say it is inevitable.
One resident of Santa Clara, California, who did not want to give her last name, said she thought about confronting an Afghan neighbour. Was he part of a terrorist network? "It's insulting to ask," she said. "At the same time, what if he really is a part of them?"
Others say Americans must not give in to these suspicions. Craig Long, an African-American who runs a medical consulting firm in Berkeley, California, knows what it is like to fall under suspicion simply by being alive. He has seen women clutch their purses as he passes by and has been followed in stores and pulled over for "driving while black".
Now, he worries people who look Middle Eastern will suffer the same degrading behaviour simply because they are "flying while Arab".