I took a class on terrorism last semester. It may sound like we assembled vests with bomb pockets or learned how to fly jumbo jets, but we studied the theory, not the tactics, and learned what makes terrorists tick.
At one point during the class we considered whom the FBI might have under its terrorism microscope right here in Tuscaloosa. One student raised his hand.
"There's this guy that works in the convenience store behind Crimson Cafe," he said. "I think he's from Afghanistan."
He suggested that the man might be a terrorist or a terrorist suspect on the FBI's list. All he knew about the man, from trips into his store to buy cigarettes, was that he was supposedly from Afghanistan. That was enough, however, to make him a terrorism suspect.
The man's name is Mohammed. He owns a store on 13th Avenue called Kerdassa, and he is not Afghani but Egyptian. He moved to the United States from Alexandria, Egypt, years ago and his son graduated from the University of Alabama. Mohammed is also one of the most kind-hearted men I have met in Tuscaloosa. He never grumbles about discrimination, because he doesn't like to complain, but when I told him about the comment in my class his mustache drooped.
Mohammed is not the only one; I've heard from Muslim women in Tuscaloosa whose head coverings attract strangle looks like a magnet. People won't take them seriously, they said. One of my good friends my freshman year, a Palestinian whose arm bore a scar from an Israeli bullet, no longer lives in Alabama because of the way he was treated in Tuscaloosa.
In a conversation the other day about the recently uncovered London terrorist plot, a friend argued for implementing racial profiling in the United States If most terrorists are Middle Eastern, he said, then naturally we should focus airport screenings on Middle Easterners. Sure, that makes sense, I said, but it also creates a lot of resentment and humiliation for the thousands of Arab Americans who have nothing to do with terrorism.
"Humiliation?" he asked. "Resentment? Why should they be humiliated? I wouldn't be."
His response illustrates our failing as a community to step outside our small perceptions of the way things should be and consider the other side of the story, how our actions, individually and collectively, make a physical impact in other's lives. If even for a moment we contemplate how we might feel if we were constantly suspected of a horrible crime simply because of our skin tone and facial features or religion, we might begin to understand the consequences of our actions.