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I got on an airplane just nine days after 9/11.

The atmosphere at Baltimore-Washington international Airport was tense. Everyone was watchful and nervous and on edge. There were National Guardsmen all over the place, in their uniforms, with their weaponry.

Everyone was on the lookout for more “Arab” terrorists. A lot of people, maybe me included, were confusing Arabs with Muslims. A lot of people were assuming that all Muslims were terrorists.

The news was starting to carry stories of Sikh men being attacked and even killed because they were wearing turbans, which people tend to think is a sign of being Muslim even though it’s not. Dark- skinned men were being attacked. Women who normally wore hijab were leaving off their veils, for fear of being attacked.

I didn’t even realize the significance of which airline I was flying until I was on board, and the pilot said, in his speech over the PA, that he and the crew thanked us all for flying with them, that it was people like us that made our country great, and he appreciated us all for the trust we were showing in United Airlines.

United Airlines. Then I remembered that two of the four hijacked planes belonged to United. And one of those planes was the one that landed randomly in rural Pennsylvania.

We heard so many rumors on 9/11. Looking back on it, I don’t know how those rumors spread, because nobody at work could get much news. No one at work had a TV. Only a few people had radios, and none of them got good reception, including mine.

Everyone was trying to get some news, any news, over an internet that was so choked with traffic that you’d type in a URL, press return, and wait. And wait. And wait. And then the server would time out.

When I heard that a plane had gone down in rural Pennsylvania, I remember thinking, why there?? And if there, why not where I was working, on the DC side of Baltimore, in the tallest building in Columbia, Maryland?

So when I got to BWI on September 20th, I was really glad to see the National Guard there. I even said so to one of them, as I was standing there in the security line.

Then, there was a commotion in the line ahead. Someone started protesting. Loudly.

Some National Guardsmen started talking to this slender, 30-something, working-class white man who was wearing a lot of gold chains. I don’t remember whether his chains had set off the alarms when he went through the security gate, or whether the Guardsmen saw his chains and knew they’d set off the alarms. In any case, they pulled the man out of the line.

The Guardsmen were trying to get the man to give them his gold chains. But he didn’t trust them. He kept protesting, and yelling, and they were telling him to calm down, calm down.

“I ain’t no AY-rab,” the man protested.

At the time, I don’t think I understood why he said he wasn’t an “AY-rab.” He was alarmed, I’m sure, and I got that. But I probably assumed he was just lower-class and ignorant.

Looking back on it, I think I misunderstood him. I think what he was saying was this. He wasn’t a terrorist, he wasn’t a suspicious person, his gold chains weren’t box cutters or bombs but symbols of money and achievement.

Just as I’d been doing, he probably sang along with “God Bless the USA” whenever he heard it on the radio, which was a lot. Maybe he went out on the evening of Friday the 14th, and joined in the candlelight vigil, like lots of people all over the country. I did that, and I had conversations with people in my neighborhood that I probably never would’ve talked to otherwise.

But he was also being racist, and jingoistic. His “USA” included white people. His neighborhood included white people. So did mine, at the time.

Eventually, the man took off his gold chains and went through the security gates without setting off any alarms. I got through the security gates without setting off any alarms.

And we all got on our planes, and got to our destinations safely.

Photo credit: © 2013 Rusty Clark, CC BY 2.0.

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