A Stranger Called Me a "Terrorist" and I Didn't React

In Memory of the Lives Lost in Paris Attacks of Nov. 13, 2015
In Memory of the Lives Lost in Paris Attacks of Nov. 13, 2015

I didn't say anything. And, in retrospect, I'm glad I didn't.

On Friday night, I walked into one of my favorite restaurants in the neighborhood in which I live in Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine, to grab a late dinner with my fiancée, her brother, and her sister-in-law. Almost immediately I saw a man at the bar turn, point to us and say to his friend, "Hey look, it's a terrorist!" He thought he was being funny, but it was no laughing matter.

I was dumbfounded. I was shocked. I was filled with rage. But I was the only one to hear what he said (other than his friend), so I chose to stay silent.

I'm glad I didn't engage, even though I am saddened that I had to make that choice. Escalating the situation with this ignorant fool would not have made things better for anyone, and in some way would have perversely justified his attitude. "See, those people can't control their anger," he would have said.

If I'm forced to fight, he wins. If I say nothing, he wins. Either way, I lose.

Overall, I am sad. I am sad for the stories I have heard from my friends who reached out to me since Friday and who have recently experienced the same things. I am sad that anyone would believe this is an appropriate thing to say to anyone, ever. And I am sad because I remember when this experience was commonplace in the months following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In those months after we were attacked, the stories of Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, and really anyone who looked like they were from "over there" being attacked or murdered were legion. It didn't matter what part of the country you were in, you thought they might come for you next. I was a college student at the time and I was called a "terrorist," "raghead," "dune-coon," and any number of other patently racist terms.

I felt unsafe many times, but in a departure from the fear most Americans felt, I felt unsafe because as a minority, I didn't know if the majority would help me if a xenophobic vigilante decided that I was guilty of the crime of being a terrorist with no evidence or due process. Over the years, the attacks decreased, but they still happened. They happen still.

The political rhetoric that permeates our society now is not only ugly, it is fundamentally dangerous. A domestic terrorist shot up a Planned Parenthood in Colorado that same day because it is believed, in part, of what extremist rhetoric convinced him to do. Words have consequences and every time a political or social leader engages in demagoguery and elevates distrust of anyone who isn't a white Christian male, our social fabric tears. And it tears apart with a cost in the blood of innocents.

As much as I wanted to confront this guy, I knew I couldn't because I have too much to lose if it went wrong. So I chose to stay silent. Because that is the paradox of being a minority (based on your race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc.) in America these days: you can't let them know they are hurting you. Acknowledging your pain means they win. Confrontation is viewed as escalation. You have to be the bigger person, or else you are seen as less of a person.

I am a lawyer, a former civil servant, a citizen, and a military officer, and even if I was none of those things, I am a human deserving of basic human decency and respect. Trying to justify that I wasn't deserving of this statement because I am any of those things would have been to intimate that it would have been warranted had I not been.

Our society has made great strides towards compassion and empathy throughout our history, but I fear we are sliding backwards. And I fear that we are returning to the post-9/11 world where as long as someone "looked" Muslim or from "over there" we could justify denying them basic rights or basic civility. But, I try to remain hopeful.

I am hopeful because the comments made about me were by only one guy in a room of a hundred. I am hopeful because of the overwhelming support I received in the hours after posting about this encounter online from people of all backgrounds and political persuasions. I am hopeful because we have been down this road as a society before -- just 14 short years ago -- and we never fully descended into this abyss (but we never really pulled ourselves up out of it either).

We have to be better to each other, or the forces who want us to tear each other apart win. If we are in a moral fight for survival, it is our values that have to take to moral high ground. In this battle, our American capacity for inclusion and strength through empathy must maintain its resolve. We cannot falter in our belief that our strength is born out of the idea that as an American people we are "out of many, one."

We cannot let simple human decency become collateral damage -- that is downright un-American.