There was a story that happened yesterday that you probably did not hear about. It happened in Boston between the Prudential and Copley train stations. A man who seemed “off” had been staring at my friend since she got on at the Longwood Medical Area stop.
This made her feel uncomfortable, but like most women who use public transportation she was used to it. She was carrying a black laptop bag by the handle as she headed to Kendall Square for her internship.
Immediately after the loudspeaker declared “Next Stop Copley,” the man yells “She has a bomb in there! Copley is next! That’s the best place for them to do an attack!” Followed by “Women are doing it too now, don’t you see the news?”
This statement was most likely a reference to the San Bernardino mass shooting — the 352nd mass shooting in America this year. The perpetrators — a young couple — were Muslim. The woman on this train was an American of Pakistani decent. But besides her skin color, there were no identifiers of her faith.
The reaction of the other commuters was nothing short of mob-like. My friend — a 5’2″ woman — was suddenly surrounded by five men who demanded to see her ID and to check the bag. She gave them her Harvard ID. They opened the bag and saw the laptop. Then they simply nodded, walked away, and sat down.
My friend asked the shouting man for an apology. He ignored her. None of the five ‘selfless’ men who heroically saved the day apologized either, even after realizing they were witless participants in a racist act. No one said anything to the man or to the young woman.
But the crux of this story is not about this man — who is most likely a paranoid and ignorant person repeating things he heard on a news channel that runs headlines like “Sharia law is coming to Alabama!”
This story is about the train full of average Americans who thought that a crazy man yelling “they have a bomb” at random brown-skinned people is none of their business. It was shameful that no one stood up for this young woman. She was as much of a victim of the man’s bigotry as of the crowd’s silence.
Some can argue that what happened on that train is a classical example of diffusion of responsibility. Others can wax poetic that paranoia is at its peak with all this talk about terror groups in lands far away. Regardless of why, that train car was either full of bigots, cowards, or a mixture of both. It is a shocking contrast to what the “Land of the free and home of the brave” is supposed to be.
And yet these stories are not rare. Last month, a Palestinian-American pizza-shop owner flying from Chicago back to his hometown of Philadelphia was told that he cannot board a plane because someone else felt unsafe. In another story, a Muslim man was escorted out of a plane because some passenger felt uncomfortable to share the same flight. As he was leaving with security, someone yelled “We got ’em” and the plane subsequently broke out into cheers. A few months ago, a 14-year-old Sudanese-American boy showed up to a school in Texas with a homemade clock and got arrested because one of the teachers thought it was a bomb.
Racism and bigotry have always existed and can easily spread by irresponsible media. Any real change in people’s view of the ‘other’ will most likely take time, but requires an active effort to preserve the freedoms this country prides itself on. We can make structural changes to ensure that human and civic rights are not so easily violated.
With anti-Muslim incitement becoming the rallying call of most Republican candidates, local and state governments need to design policies and laws to ensure that a delusional character yelling “Muslims in New Jersey cheered for 9/11” will not affect the daily lives of tax-paying, law-abiding American citizens.
For example, the threshold for what is designated as a ‘hate crime’ should be clearly and unambiguously defined when it comes to anything involving the Muslim faith. Also particularly relevant to the case of Boston in the aftermath of the marathon tragedy, what is the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)’s plan for dealing with false bomb threats directed at Muslims? Do they know how many ‘brown’ students, doctors, engineers and medical researchers take the T every day?
Dealing with complex and widespread problems like Islamophobia or anti-Semitism is not simple. But people of conscience need to stand up and confront them: If not with action, then with words. That is at least a start.
Ahmed AlKhateeb is a researcher at Harvard Medical School. This piece was first published at the Huffington Post.