For some reason, people sometimes mistake me for a terrorist. Once I got interrogated by an air marshal for merely looking out a window, and the following year in London I totally freaked out several people on a bus.
The second incident was, I suppose, partially my fault. I boarded a city bus with a large suitcase, which I put on the luggage rack. Since the rack was right next to the door, I moved a little away from it so I wouldn’t be in the way.
For a couple of minutes I stood there, keeping an eye on my bag and not listening to the buzz of voices around me. One conversation, however, began to get my attention.
“I just don’t think it looks right,” a worried woman’s voice said.
“Well, then mention it to the driver,” a man said.
“I don’t want to make a fuss,” the woman replied.
“Look, you’re worried about it just sitting there. You don’t see the owner. So go up to the driver and mention it,” the man said. He didn’t sound worried himself. Instead he sounded a bit condescending.
I turned to them.”Are you talking about my bag?” I asked.
A wave of relief washed over the woman’s face.
“Yes!” she cried. “I didn’t see you put it down and nobody was standing around it, and I got very worried.”
“Don’t worry, no bomb in it, just a bunch of dirty clothes,” I said. Then I turned to the man next to her. “But you didn’t seem worried.”
He shrugged. “Nobody would need a bag that big to blow up a bus.”
I laughed. “Well maybe I’m a really inefficient bomber and I don’t know how to mix explosives correctly.”
“Oh no,” he dismissed that idea. “That is a huge bag. If it was filled with explosives you could barely lift it.”
I studied them for a moment and said, “So how do you know I’m really not a terrorist? All you have is my word.”
They looked back at me – middle-aged, middle-class, white me. The woman suddenly looked embarrassed. The man looked defiant.
“You don’t fit the profile,” he said.
“Remember Timothy McVeigh?” I asked.
He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “The right wing loons in your country rarely do such things. Most terrorists look nothing like you.”
I smiled at him. “Who’s to say I’m not a right-wing loon?”
“WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP THIS CONVERSATION?!!!” A woman squawked from a few rows back.
“Sorry ma’am. This was all hypothetical,” I said.
She immediately looked relieved, just like the first woman. All it took was a reassuring word from a complete stranger – a light-skinned, well-spoken stranger.
She, too, had missed the point.
[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]