Nothing Happened. Or Did It?
"Attack" On The Pentagon
Mohammad Ali Salih
I have come to dread weeks like the last one in
That realization came to me after a false alarm at
the Pentagon Metro station set bells ringing in my head -- and I think there's
a message for all of us in what didn't happen that day. It was Dec. 6, and I
had left my office at the
After I boarded the train, there was a further announcement, saying "this train will not, repeat, will not, go to the Pentagon." The first thing that came to my mind was, "Oh no, not again!" I remembered 9/11, and I panicked.
Forgive me for my reaction. Under other
circumstances, I might have asked fellow passengers for more information, but
when two black riders started theorizing about a terrorist attack, I was scared
that I might raise suspicions. Since coming to the
I hoped to leave my worries behind on the next
steps of my journey -- a bus ride from
When the taxi arrived and the driver turned out to
be a Muslim immigrant from
Pepper spray? That was what had shut down the station, creating the emergency -- and my panic? An Arab friend reached me on my cell phone, wondering why I had not answered earlier calls. I told him that I had not wanted to speak openly in Arabic because of the attack-on-the-Pentagon-that-turned-out-to-be-pepper-spray.
We laughed and then lamented my story. He joked
that I would have panicked more if I had "Middle Eastern features."
But we agreed that it was a sad reflection on the overall atmosphere of fear in
My friend told me more soberly that he believed this situation would last "forever." As a reporter for more than 40 years who covered the Vietnam War, I am a little more optimistic. I have seen how time can heal divisions. In some sense, as I am getting older, I am becoming more American, more Arab, more African and more Muslim. I see myself becoming closer to Christians and whites, after recognizing that this civilization, at its roots, is Christian and white and after almost 30 years of marriage to a white Christian American. I have taken our three biracial children to mosques, churches, synagogues, Hindu and Buddhist temples. I know that I can absorb differences and make them part of who I am. My family is a living example of that.
Since 9/11, I have written scores of stories that are in some way inspired by the fear that has engulfed this, the greatest nation in the history of mankind. I have listened with a mixture of concern and amusement to messages on the Metro about watching for "suspicious bags and suspicious behaviors." Yet, I've found myself becoming uncomfortable when I've read about Metro police officers being trained to use new behavioral profiling techniques as they patrol subway stations, seeking to identify suspect riders. Much as I appreciate the need for added security at airports, I can't help feeling singled out sometimes; during my last two plane trips I noticed "SSS" marked on my boarding passes and realized that the coding explained why I had been so elaborately searched.
All those thoughts were coursing through my mind on the day of the Pentagon incident. I learned that WTOP radio had reported the incident throughout the day, and NewsChannel 8 had shown a video of its correspondent outside the Pentagon. He had talked about "scary moments" and about a police officer wearing a gas mask and "screaming at us to drive to the opposite direction." The correspondent added that "understandably terrorist-sensitive emergency officials moved to investigate." That helped me to understand the GMU students' comments.
But I am left wondering: Does the rush to issue warnings and set in motion emergency security measures help people prepare for new attacks, or cause them to panic? I can't tell you for sure. Mine, after all, is a story of what happens when nothing happens, except for heightened security and jangled nerves. I still ask myself: Had I, an urbane, cosmopolitan, international, open-minded, 62-year-old journalist, overreacted? Clearly I had. But only because the security systems had done so. That evening, the news reported the Pentagon evacuation had been caused not even by pepper spray, but by cleaning agents that activated a chemical sensor setting off the alarms -- in the station, in the city and in my head.
Author's e-mail: email@example.com
Mohammad Ali Salih is the