“What’s real and what’s true aren’t necessarily the same.”—Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
In retrospect, it’s amazing I wasn’t hauled off to some little room tucked away in the basement of Washington, D. C.’s Dulles International Airport to be thoroughly interrogated and physically probed. I exhibited every sign of being a terrorist. I was sweating in the air-conditioned gate area. I had a bulging carry-on bag securely slung over my shoulder. I rubbed my eyes and face with the palms of my hands. I stroked my beard in quiet contemplation. And I paced—obviously trying to make an important decision. To even the most naïve sleuth, it would’ve been clear I was in a great debate about whether or not to board a 747 bound for London and bring it down in a fiery tangle of machinery and body parts.
It’s remarkable that the cameras weren’t relaying my moment of great doubt to a security agent surrounded by a flock of TV screens and that said agent’s Big Brother didn’t have his hand on the phone or the panic button or a top-secret death ray of some sort. I telegraphed SUICIDE BOMBER, and no one seemed to notice.
Not yet, anyway.
But I was not a bomber. I simply had a worst-of-my-life migraine and my dilemma was this: either I board the jet to sit in a window seat over a wing with three roaring engines and die a thousand-and-one brain deaths of pain or I miss the flight and hope to catch another the next day in the midst of summer holiday season.
When the gatekeeper called out my flight number one final time, I handed her my boarding pass and shuffled onto that great airship.
I was the last passenger to board, and it was worse than I had imagined. The late afternoon sun screamed in through the starboard windows. As I passed every single shaft of light, I felt a dagger shiv into my eyes. The stifling heat of the plane and the collective body heat of its 300 passengers congealed in the arch of the ceiling and engulfed my throbbing head. As I moved down the aisle, a group of teenaged, French girls was having an impromptu party. Their shrieks slit my eardrums.
I reached my little row to find a quiet couple occupying the aisle and middle seats, the gentleman on the aisle. The lady, who was reading a book, had placed her jacket and purse on the window seat. By this time, she had assumed the seat would remain vacant.
“Excuse me,” I said, my eyeballs blistering in the sun, ears possibly bleeding, “I believe that’s my seat.”
The woman fixed her eyes on me and judged me in the breath of a second. Her serenity fled, leaving a cloud of disgust. She studied my beard and longish hair, my denim jacket and my rugby shirt. She fully frowned at the carry-on bag.
The man stood and stepped into the aisle, but not her highness. She only stood, knees slightly bent, to make sure my passage, short as it was, would be most difficult. As I tried to ease my body—and bag—around her without touching her in some inappropriate way, I distinctly heard her sigh.
I slumped into my seat, stowed the bag neatly under the seat in front of me, and eased off my jacket as gracefully as I could in the cramped space, for she and her husband had returned to their seats. I assume they were married, as they said no more than 10 words to one another the entire flight.
The lady held up her mystery novel and resumed reading. All seemed well until I leaned back and a sliver of sharpened sunlight lasered into my right eyeball. Without thought I pulled down the plastic window blind. Problem solved.
But alas, the damsel beside me, she was distressed. I had shut out her solar book light. She reached up to switch on the overhead lamp and let fly with another, louder sigh.
That was two sighs before we had even taxied. I was on a roll.
The flight was uncomfortable. On general principle I tried to not annoy my neighbors for the seven hours we co-existed. I kept my mouth shut and my legs still. I told my bladder to hang in like some hybrid camel. I refused to leave my seat. Still, I seemed to intrude on their peaceful existence at every turn: reaching for my meal, renting headphones for the in-flight movie, breathing—all treated to more sighs and eye rolls, even from the husband. I was evil incarnate.
My headache eventually let up, and the cabin dimmed to encourage us to sleep for what little night we would have. I never learned to sleep on a plane, so I generally kept my eyes fixed on the stars, the clouds, and the wing lights outside my window. To my left, the husband drifted into a deep nap, and the wife continued to read her book.
I wondered at their apparent hatred of me, someone they had never met before, someone they knew nothing about. Had there been a moment of civility, they would have learned I was a doctoral student on his way to do research on Chaucer manuscripts at Cambridge University and that this was my first trip to the United Kingdom. Had a real conversation broken out, I might have told them that because of several concerns for my family, I had slept very little the night before and that I was well into my 36th hour without real sleep. In other words, I was stressed out and looked it. But this seemed impossible, given their assumptions of me, so we three flew over the north Atlantic in icy silence.
We landed at Heathrow at daybreak, and the wife read on. I couldn’t stand it any longer.
I had to part ways on a positive note, to find a “fare thee well” of closure. Leaning toward her just the slightest, I said, “Too bad you didn’t finish your book.”
Without missing a beat, the Wife of Wrath replied in a most condescending British accent, “I shall finish before we reach the gate.”
This, however, was a lie, for she must have had at least 15 pages to go. And so, to make her lie come true, she shifted gears from reading to a hasty scan, turning pages at a frightening rate (the breeze was refreshing). Thus true enough, but far from reality, she arrived on the last page just as the plane rolled to a stop. I stifled a laugh, and simply waited to move until wife and husband were well ahead of me in the slow queue.
In fact, I watched the entire herd of jet-lagged humanity inch toward the door. I was in no hurry. As a perpetual black sheep, I often wait while the masses crush against one another. I’d rather wait as a person than a cluster.
But, this is when I began to notice how my lone-wolf style would have its drawbacks in England. Specifically, a few of the travelers from the rear of the plane, the ones I assumed to be British, eyeballed me, fixed disapproving glares upon me as they passed by. It seemed wife and husband were not an anomaly in their disdain for me.
The truth is this: I did not yet know I was being profiled as a terrorist. Nor did I know I had only completed the first leg of a huge paranoia trip, and that it was about to get worse.
Once I was off the plane, I satisfied my bladder with a pit stop at the men’s room and then made my way to customs. Waiting in line, I could see that the weary travelers ahead of me (mostly American) were getting by with the standard four-six questions.
I got over 20.
“Once you reach Cambridge, how long do you expect to remain there?”
“Do you plan to travel anywhere from Cambridge while you are there?”
“I had thought I might.”
“I was thinking of going to Bury St. Edmunds for a day trip.”
“For what purposes?”
“To help me with my research.”
“How would that help with research on Chaucer?”
“The manuscript I am studying has a connection with the abbey that once stood there.”
“The manuscript contains a poem by a monk from the abbey…”
That tedious and guilt-inspiring interrogation rattled me, left me feeling more foreign than I could have anticipated.
I needed a break before venturing onto the subway, so, being more American than Lincoln, I hit the currency exchange window then walked up to a little tobacco/candy shop to make my first purchase in England: a Coke. I then made my own little oasis at a rank of empty chairs in a calm section of the terminal. I sat down front and left, popped the tab on my Coke, and had a sip of the British recipe that tastes like salted turpentine. Yuck! But as a Coke addict, I needed the fix, and after just a few minutes, I began to relax.
A maintenance man walked by. He eyeballed me with a fixed stare.
A minute later, a security officer walked by. He also eyeballed me and the suitcase and carry-on at my feet. I knew he thought I might have a bomb, but I didn’t know why.
The next thing I knew, the officer and the custodian were standing to one side, watching me.
I took the hint, trashed what was left of my Coke, grabbed my bags, and headed for an escalator that led to the London Underground, The Tube.
The train I hopped onto was packed tight. With no place to sit, I was forced to stand near the doors at one end. I stacked my bags beside me, leaned back against the wall, and grabbed an overhead rail. For the next hour I became an insect pinned wriggling to the train’s shell so that my fellow passengers could scrutinize my very being. I had entered Kafka’s hell, for each accuser stared at me for sustained intervals of time, passed judgment on me, and found me guilty of some un-named crime.
When people got off at their various stops, they always headed for the doors at the other end of our car, even when the ones near me were closer. Each stop also brought new jurors. My trial repeated itself in an odd rotation of mass condemnation. In another time and place, I might well have been stoned to death in the shadows of the mosque walls. Only after death, facing still more judgment, might I finally be informed of my crime.
I was so naïve in this respect, that I searched for an answer that would turn out to be so obvious in the end. About 30 minutes from the heart of London, I came half way to solving the riddle: no one but me had a beard.
Of all the men on the train, not one had facial hair, though one plump woman, whom I first mistook for a member of the Monty Python Troupe, had a moustache.
Somehow, my whiskers created an artificial boundary between me and “them.” Who could have imagined such a thing? It sounded like a college sociology experiment. Still, it was all I had to go on, so I began testing my hypothesis by searching the pool of faces at every station we passed. It turned out that the men who peopled the platforms were as clean-shaven as those in my Tube carriage.
There was but one exception on the entire trip. Near the end of my ride, a gentleman strode onto my car with a big bushy beard and a handlebar moustache, both jet black. His skin was darker than my own. The other passengers seemed not to notice.
The difference was he wore a scarlet turban. The gent was obviously from India.
I’ll never fully understand the British love affair with all things Indian and African, but obviously, his roots were far enough in the east to make his facial hair acceptable.
At least he didn’t stare at me.
Finally, we arrived at the Piccadilly Circus Station, and I took leave of my subway trials.
Piccadilly was oddly quiet, but it was still early on a Saturday morning, and I enjoyed the peace and relative solitude. I made my way to the Regent Palace Hotel, which stood right on the Circus edge and offered European Accommodations. Fortunately they had a room already available, and with little fanfare (and no glares), I was able to check in.
I crashed on the bed. I had hoped to get some sleep but failed. With the excitement of being in London the first time and the unbelievable paranoia trip I had endured, sleep was but a fond memory. I cleaned up a bit, put on a clean shirt, pulled my denim jacket back on, and ventured forth.
I spent the day in the more-or-less typical fashion of a tourist without a tour group: I walked to Buckingham Palace to call on the Queen, but she was otherwise engaged. I strolled through Hyde Park. I ventured over to Westminster Abbey where I bee-lined to Poets Corner (I stood on T.S. Eliot’s memorial floor stone and studied the tomb in which they like to believe Chaucer rests). I passed time in a couple of bookstores in the Charing Cross area. And I was offered love—for a price, in Soho (I did hate to turn her down, she seemed so sincere).
I then returned to my hotel to freshen up for the evening festivities in Piccadilly. The day had been normal, and I even began to wonder if I had imagined or misinterpreted the earlier events.
Saturday night under the garish neon lights of Piccadilly Circus is an adventure for the eyes of “normal” people like me. Having now spent three Saturday nights in Piccadilly, I can safely say the events of this particular night were fairly typical—up to the part that involved me.
Punk rockers with florescent hair, multiple piercings, leather jackets, and chains had taken up residence in front of the McDonald’s. A few gay men were kissing and making out to taunt a sizable group of neo-Nazi-skin-head types with black boots and swastika tattoos. A prostitute strutted for passing cars and theater-goers. Not to be outdone, a huckster was raking in money by betting tourists they couldn’t ride more than a couple of meters on his bicycle without dropping their feet to the ground. The trick? The man had inserted a gearbox just below the handlebars so that if you turned left, the front wheel turned right, your balance failed, and down went your foot.
Through all this madness, a long line of Hare Krishnas performed a snake dance. They wore robes and banged tambourines while weaving in and out of the various, sovereign groups. They exuded love and peace, and they irritated nearly everyone.
At the center of it all, like the calm eye of a hurricane, a dozen or so hippies sat around the Circus fountain smoking pot.
And me? I took up a position near a subway entrance. I leaned on the railing and watched the happy mayhem. Innocent. Calm. Content. I thought I might fall asleep standing up when two police officers, a man and a woman, walked up to me and asked for identification. I was shocked by how they singled me out from the surrounding madness.
Without a word, I slowly eased my passport from the breast pocket of my denim jacket. I handed it to the man, as he was the one who had asked for it. He began his inspection.
I glanced at his partner and was startled to find hatred there. I know of no other way to put it. She hated me. In that brief flash of a second, I understood that my paranoia was justified. The British hated me for whom they perceived me to be. The word “profile” still hadn’t entered my consciousness, but it was pacing outside the door.
To see hatred in eyes of someone you have only just met is a terrible thing. It defeats your sense of human kindness and slithers its way to the core of your identity. “What have I done to deserve such utter contempt?” you ask yourself, even as your fight or flight defenses begin to kick in. When someone of authority approaches you with such hatred, the adrenaline pump switches on and your animal survival instincts go on full alert.
All of this played out in the time it took for her partner to gaze at my passport and ask in a surprised voice, “Oh, you’re American?”
“Yes,” I answered, trying to keep my voice calm.
“When did the US begin issuing green passports?” His tone was accusatory.
It is true. Ninety-nine percent of the time United States passports for average citizens are dark blue. Every once in a great while, though, they try other colors to celebrate something or other. It was my great luck to draw a green one.
“About the time I applied for it, four months ago,” I answered.
Smelling a forgery, the man said nothing more to me and talked into the radio microphone on his shoulder, “Is the US currently issuing green passports of a sudden?”
“Green?” came an exaggerated British voice tinged in static.
“Not that I’ve been made aware, but let me check.”
The next 60 seconds were interminable. We stood in awkward silence, the man staring at the skinheads, the woman glaring at me, and me staring at the pavement. I tried to breathe naturally. I just knew I was about to spend my first (and probably last) night in England in a jail cell someplace.
Finally, the disembodied voice handed down a reprieve on the charge of falsifying documents: “Yes, they are issuing green passports.”
There was a flicker of disappointment on the face of the policeman. He’d garner no kudos for rounding up a dangerous forger this night. But I was not yet free to go. After signing off from the radio, the man proceeded to ask me about a dozen questions similar to those at customs. The woman continued to glare me. Finally, apparently satisfied, he handed over my passport, and said, “I would suggest you order a proper blue passport when you return home.” With that, the cops walked away.
I tried to resume my people-watching, but the cloud of paranoia was too dense. In the circus of extreme human expression that was Piccadilly, I was not welcome. I returned to my room to sleep off my exhaustion. As it was, I had a fitful night of mixed-up and anxious dreams. I felt as lost and alone as Abraham battling a sandstorm and simultaneously questioning the need for so many gods, so many judges.
I left London early the next morning, taking the Tube to King’s Cross and then taking a train to Cambridge. As it was a Sunday morning, I encountered far fewer people and less animosity. The worst example was an older gentleman on the train who kept an eye on me, as though he expected me to make mischief. I finally stared him down at one point, but I caught him eyeballing me just a moment later. So in the end, our animosity was mutual.
Another suspicious encounter occurred when I registered with the bursar at Gonville and Caius College, a part of Cambridge University. He seemed particularly fixated on my beard and hesitantly assigned me to a comfortable room as far removed from anyone else in that dormitory as he possibly could.
My afternoon and evening in Cambridge were unremarkable, other than to note that Cambridge truly is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited.
But my sleep was restless for another night. This made four nights or nearly 100 hours of inadequate rest. I tossed and turned with visions of being rejected from the university library due to my appearance. Fortunately, reality was far from dreams. Having made arrangements long ago and having a formal letter from my dissertation director to introduce me, I was processed, photographed, and presented with an ID and a pass to the rare books room in less than an hour. Once there, the manuscripts I wished to study were already fetched and assembled, and I sat down to study books that were nearly 600 years old. The woman next to me was reading through the collected papers of Charles Darwin while the man across from me was meticulously sorting through 2000-year-old papyrus fragments I was in my element, and all my troubles stayed outside.
That evening, however, posed a new problem. I had been invited to have dinner with a professor and her husband, but we had never met. She was an acquaintance of my director’s, and it was through her that I had managed a room at her college. I began to worry that she and her husband would hate me on the specific fact of my facial hair. The paranoia was back.
I briefly considered shaving it off, but then realized that I would look significantly different from my passport photo (ensconced in that green folder) and my library ID. That could create further troubles. Still, on the ride to the home of my helpers, the cab driver glared at me in the rearview so much, I feared we’d crash. Maybe a few clean-shaven days would have been worth it after all.
Imagine my joy when the front door opened to reveal a host who had a full beard and bushy moustache. I was so relieved I failed to register the fact he did not have a British accent. His name was Geoffrey, and he cheerily ushered me into his home where I also met his wife, Sarah, who accepted me (and my whiskers) with open hospitality. I soon found myself sitting in their living room with a cat on my lap and a drink in my hand. After a few polite niceties, Geoffrey asked me about my journey thus far. I paused for a moment, and, hoping to finally glean the source of my woes, I said, “To be honest, it has been difficult.” I then related, in summary, the events of the past few days and how they had unsettled me.
This was followed by a long pause, long enough for me to think I had said something inappropriate. I was just trying to formulate some generic apology when Geoffrey said, in a musical lilt, “They think you’re Irish. They think you’re going to blow something up.”
My real name is Matthew Wolfe. I am an American-born conglomeration of Western European (including Irish), European Jew, and Cherokee bloodlines. If I have any Arabic DNA, I have yet to find it in my genealogical searches. If you, the reader, assumed I was an Arab based on my admittedly suggestive descriptions of myself, it only shows that we’re all given to making assumptions based on scanty information. What we do with those assumptions is what is at issue here.
The date of my ordeal was July 1993, well before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was also about five months before the Downing Street Declaration of Peace was made between the British and Irish Governments and more than a year before a long-term ceasefire of hostilities could begin. Irish Republic Army bombings had been a reality for London and continued to be a genuine threat. Citizens were on high alert.
I unwittingly fit the profile: 30ish, shaggy hair, beard, and denim. American citizenship meant little in this context. Irish-American sympathizers were smuggling money and even weapons into the UK. And my green passport? The Irish passport is, of course, green (1).
When, in his beautiful Irish accent, Geoffrey said, “They think you’re Irish. They think you’re going to blow something up,” all the pieces of my paranoid British tour snapped into place. I instantly knew he was right. When, for example, I stood with my bags at the doors of my subway car, the other passengers were afraid I would jump off at the last minute of a stop, leaving explosive cargo behind me. Standing at the subway entrance in Piccadilly on a crowded Saturday night set of all sorts of alarms.
Geoffrey offered me several details about his daily life under the profiler’s gaze. Most notably of being pulled over by the police for driving in places and neighborhoods where Irish people do not belong, of his car being searched without probable cause, of his guilt by beard. His stories sounded similar to those of African-Americans in Detroit or Baltimore. Or of Native-Americans who venture too far off the reservation. Or of Hispanics harassed on a whim in Arizona. Profiling is a dirty game of guilt by association extended indefinitely.
I’ve had my share of incidents of hostility from people who found fault in me, the people who have made hurtful comments about my Jewish or Cherokee roots, the cop who verbally assaulted me in front of my home because I am “a fucking hippie,” or the people behind me at the mall who curse because health issues have significantly slowed my gait. Most of us experience such unpleasantness from time-to-time, and we move on. Profiling, however, is far more insidious because it follows the victim around like a sadistic shadow. To be scrutinized and judged guilty of unknown crimes every time you leave your home is an oppressive feeling I have not experienced anywhere else except that trip to England and a subsequent trip there in 1996. I hope I never experience it again.
Understanding the profiler’s mania does nothing to make the paranoia any easier. Glares from the general population, questions from police and security, and the heightened tension that greeted me every time I boarded public transportation did not just evaporate after Geoffrey clarified things for me. He merely gave me a name for the disease. There was no inoculation for the hatred I sometimes saw in the eyes that fell upon me. The wear on my soul from such daily interactions soon took its toll, even as I fell in love with Great Britain on the whole.
One day, well into my second in Cambridge, something happened which showed me the extent of the damage profiling does to each of us. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. I had gone for a walk and had picked up a few apples at the market in city centre. Walking back to my dormitory, I ate one of the apples and thought about the work I’d be doing with the Chaucer manuscripts that day. Up ahead of me, on the opposite side of the street, I spotted a man who simply did not belong. He wore black sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt, pressed black trousers, and shiny black shoes. On his wrist, a large wristwatch gleamed in the sunlight. This was no tourist or ordinary citizen. I did my best not to look at him. I didn’t need this Gestapo shit on such a perfect morning.
But, from my peripheral vision, I could see him cross the street at an angle that would intercept me few steps ahead. I braced myself. At the last moment, he stepped into my path, forcing me to stop abruptly. Then, in a dull, mid-western American accent, he asked, “Excuse me, do you know the time?”
Three things were wrong with this picture: 1) He had a watch. 2) I plainly did not. 3) He could’ve asked any of a dozen people on the other side of the street. There was no reason to cross just to ask me.
I smiled and replied that I didn’t know but guessed it was about 8:45. Without pause, he asked what state I was from. “West Virginia,” I answered.
“Never been there, but I hear it’s nice.”
“And now you’re in Cambridge doing research at the university,” he said. It was a statement. Not a question. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for a better look. I kept my smile and cool. I allowed the statement to hang a moment. I tried to stare into his black glasses at where I supposed his eyes to be, but couldn’t. Looking off to the side as though guilty of something, I said, “Yes.”
This exchange—him making a statement about me and me affirming his intelligence—went on for another minute or so. He then bid me good day and walked on past. It was, and still is, the creepiest conversation I have ever had.
Obviously it was more than profiling. I was being watched, followed, vetted, and warned. It was another level of violation to the sanctity of human trust. And, sadly, a violation that now seems quaint in our post 9/11 world with cameras, drones, and computers monitoring our every move.
Profiling further homogenizes the herd of humanity, which in turn dulls our intellect. The word “terrorist” is itself a tool of oppressive profilers hell bent on gathering intel. I have little doubt that my exchanges with the security representatives of England are now part of a database somewhere. Then there are my letters to and on behalf of political prisoners. There are the global issues I discuss in the classes I teach. At what point do I cross an arbitrary line in the sand and find my name on the Do Not Fly List—guilty until I prove my innocence? Will this essay be my final step to that status? Probably not, but a touch of paranoia now follows me everywhere I travel.
Still, that conversation with the man in the black shiny shoes left me with another perspective of how humanity’s “war on terror” is actually a war with itself. As George Orwell would, I suspect, agree, in the act of profiling, it is the profiler, an agent of oppression, who gives up his or her freedom. When a society engages in or approves of profiling, it becomes an “absurd puppet” that is directed by its own fears and imagination (2). It generates chaos, resentment, anger, and paranoia. Profiling shoves civilization back to the ideology that each of us is in a state of the perpetual guilt. When we sift the general populace through a variety of meshes and screens in search of those who might do us harm, those who would do us harm, already have.
(1) The United States issued green passports in 1993 to commemorate Ben Franklin and the bicentennial of the US Consular service. Franklin was the first US Ambassador.
(2) I base my opinion on Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant,” though it is also apparent in 1984.