by Jay Peterson
On September 9th, a Sunday, my good friend Amit Shah and I decided that we would go for a hike. We had been waiting for a good time to head out to the woods before winter started in earnest. Sporting wicked hangovers, we set off to a state park in Utica, Illinois called Starved Rock State Park. The place gets its name from a group of Illiniweck Indians that were trapped on top of sandstone buffs by the Potawatomi after a battle. Unable to fight their way off the high bluffs they slowly starved to death under siege. Not a very pleasant story.
As we set off to Utica a hard rain lashed our car, and we almost thought that we should have turned around, but a combination of optimism and stupidity prevailed and we were soon trudging through the mud and getting soaked. It turned out to be just the right time to visit the area since the caves and canyons of the area were filled with impromptu water falls and rapids that were well worth the trip to see. Amit talked about how much his mother would like to visit this place. He had shown here most of the interesting things in the city and was eager to show her something new and different. His mother was Janes which is a Hindu sect. He had just spent a week fasting and we talked about spiritual enlightenment or lack there of that comes from religion. We joked about the stoner scout group that he used to be in and we talked about the bad economy and life in general. I heard all about how his parents came to America with help from an Uncle and how he barely remembers what his life was like in India before he came to the states. He said the citizenship tests were easy from what he can recall.
After hiking about 15 miles, we were tired and wet but it was a great time. I dropped him off at his place that night and he was upset that he had to fly down to Arkansas on business the next day but appreciated the hike. It seems so long ago now, its hard to imagine that its only been a month since then. I talked to him later the next week. He had to rent a car to come from Arkansas to Chicago since there were no flights. We joked about how the next time he gets on a plane he should be careful. He said that "The Sky Marshals can't tell the difference between brown Hindus and brown Moslems most likely but I'm not worried." He sent me this email a week later:
"Everyone, I thought I might send this e-mail to everyone for 2 reasons: 1. I don't want to explain this story anymore and 2. I think it is important for people to realize what is going on and how close to home this terrorism stuff actually hits.
If some of you have heard this, sorry. I don't do stuff like this very often but I just wanted to inform everyone and tell everyone to be careful.
First, I want to start out by saying I love this country. It is one of the few places in the world that you don't automatically get persecuted for your race, religion or points of view. It is really one of the melting pots in the world. Where black, white, Indian, American Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Latino, people of European descent and all the other races, religions & cultures I won't get a chance to mention live in semi harmony. Mind you the US is nowhere close to perfect but I am glad to know that the government doesn't control the newspaper, I can complain about everything and anything and not be worried about someone coming after me. I can hang out with fifteen people all from different backgrounds and no one says anything. The US is a place where I have had the opportunity and freedom to become what I want to. A place where most weeks my biggest worry is what I am going to do for the weekend and when I can afford my next new gadget. I live a life that isn't surrounded by poverty, war or death. I live in a place where, despite its problems, most people seem happy including myself.
Now I will get into my story. As of Monday I have become a member of a group of innocent people who got to be "racially profiled" by United Airlines and the FBI. The day started out like any other day. I can't remember the number of times I have gone to the airport in the last year and a half. If people aren't aware I do quite a bit of traveling for work. So anyway knowing the state of the country and air travel right now I arrive at the airport well before time, check in and go through all the security clearances as I always do. When it come time to get on the plane I do as normal. We even get to the runway and are about to take off when the captain get on the intercom and states that we have a "minor problem" which we need to fix and we will be back in the air again. So we head back towards the gate. Everyone at this point is pretty curious as to what the problem is as you might imagine. Next thing I know the gate is being opened and there are two baggage handlers (I am suspecting they were undercover FBI agents) who come to my seat and ask if I am Amit Shah. After confirming that I am Amit Shah they escort me and one other brown person off the plane. Now I can't describe the feeling of having 150 eyes look at you as you are being escorted off the plane. There was only one thing on all the other passengers' minds. If you can't guess, I was being viewed as a terrorist. It makes me upset even today. Once at the top of the terminal I was met by a FBI agent who interrogated me. So the apparent reason I was pulled off the plane was because my frequent flyer card had my last name spelled as SHAN vs. SHAH and because I had changed my address. If everyone isn't aware I moved a few months ago. This apparently gives the FBI and United the right to recall a plane, pull me off of the plane which is ready to take off, and ask me questions such as "did you know anything about the attacks before they happened?" and "did you know any of the terrorists?" This also apparently gives them the right to call and stop by my home in St. Louis to ask my mom a few questions. I am not sure how many of you have frequent flyer cards with names spelled wrong and how many of you actually change addresses on those types of cards but I am guess there are a number of you out there with this sort of situation. To add even more emotion to the situation 2 women actually got off the flight because they felt it was unsafe to fly with me and this other guy on the plane. That made me feel even worse. Again a feeling I can't really put into words but the pit of my stomach fell out from under me. Me and this other person were allowed back on the plane after we were "cleared". The ladies soon followed after. I suppose someone calmed them down. Then we went on our way.
Now most of you know me pretty well. I am not sure what about me profiles me as a terrorist: The fact that I have lived in this country for the past 18 years, the fact that I am an AMERICAN CITIZEN, the fact that I am a productive member of society who works in corporate America, or maybe the fact that I am Hindu/Jain. Funny how Jainism is based on NON-VIOLENCE. Maybe, just maybe it is the fact that I am 20-25 and brown. No, that couldn't be it, could it? You will have to pardon me for my sarcasm as I don't really know of too many other ways to react to this. If someone had done their homework, if someone from United had contacted me before hand, maybe I could have been saved the embarrassment and humiliation of being profiled. If someone had run some sort of background check on me before the plane had taken off they would have seen that I am not a terrorist. Now I cannot be sure if what the FBI and United said was the truth (about the name and address red flagging me). Maybe something else triggered me to be profiled but if that was the case then I would like to know what. Maybe they can't tell me for security reasons but I can tell you their treatment and explanation was not satisfactory. Now did we go after all Christian, white people when the Oklahoma City bombings happened? NO! Why? Because it just doesn't make any sense. You cannot target a whole group of people. Most people are law abiding, constructive members of society. The FBI did not arrest or interrogate every "Bob Johnson" who wanted fertilizer for his garden or lawn. What they did do was check into all the militia groups, into all the questionable organizations and then go after them. Now I don't remember all the details so if I am wrong or have misstated something in the above example please feel free to tell me. I am sure I am simplifying things. These things are always complex and hard.
Just to be fair to the FBI and United I will agree with the fact that what they did was a double edged sword. On one hand I am glad that the FBI and United are checking on people. I fly all the time and I want to feel safe myself. On the other hand I think the situation could have been handled better. Saying that I have flown 3 or 4 times with my name wrong on my card someone could have asked me about the problem before hand. Do people not realize that this is my home too? That I live here, that I am pretty much going through the same thing that all other people that reside in this country are going through. Apparently you don't have the same feelings of being scared, violated and worried if you are brown. Anyway I suppose they have cleared me now. They have done their business. The ironic thing about this situation is that in trying to protect our civil liberties and freedoms we are going to have to endure having them taken a way for a while. Perhaps a long time. I know I won't be flying for a while. If any of you do fly I hope this doesn't happen to you. Be careful.
I called Amit the night I got this email. He was really shaken up. He told his boss that he won't fly for at least six months. I couldn't blame him and I couldn't even begin to know how he feels but I want to, I want to understand what is going on in our country and in the minds of our leaders but I don't think they even know what they are doing. There is just so much fear in our country right now it's hard to see beyond it. One thing is certain, my friend, a boy scout and an American Citizen will never feel the same getting on a plane again.