BOSTON — This is a true story about racism and hatred and how it masks our true selves from each other, and how we must work to overcome it.
Last week I had taken a few days off, a break scheduled long before the events in New York and Washington. But on Friday morning, the media carried a story that authorities had information about a possible terrorist attack in Boston. (It was later proven to be a false report, the result of the mistranslation of an intercepted phone call.) So I went into work for a few hours to help plan how csmonitor.com would continue to publish the Monitor online if we had to keep our employees away from downtown Boston.
I left around 2 p.m and headed to the subway. I always take the Red Line to my home in Milton, just outside Boston. The first few stops were uneventful. Then, as we pulled into South Station, there was a disturbance on the platform involving a large number of African-American school kids. An MBTA officer started herding them onto the train, into the car I was riding. A few of the kids hurled insults at the cop, but most of the kids were causing no problem, other than raising the noise level a bit.
The chatter continued for a few stops until we got to the JFK-UMass stop. And that's when events began to heat up.
A large group of Vietnamese-American kids were waiting on the platform, looking for someone among the kids already on the train. And from the look on their faces, they didn't want to talk about homework. As the situation became tense, and with no 'authority figure' in sight, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and got off to wait for the next train. After a few minutes of shouting and threats, the doors closed, and the train pulled slowly out of the station.
The mood was tense, but not dangerous. Then, down at the other end of the platform, an older white man who had been watching, made a comment to the kids who were still milling about. He probably told them to go home, or get out of his way, or something. Whatever he said, the kids were quick to respond. And after he heard what they said, he went wild.
He started to chase one kid in particular, who had also been one of the group who was looking to fight with the other students. The older man, started yelling about how he had been "in two wars" and that he wasn't afraid to fight. Meanwhile, the young man who had been slowly walking away, stopped and also screamed insults at his now puffing adversary.
Now, call me stupid, but I decided that something should be done to calm the situation. So I walked between the two, who were now about ten feet apart, and asked them to think about what was happening. I hoped that putting myself between them might prevent physical violence from taking place, which I'm glad to say, it did.
But as I stood between them, I could feel the current of hatred and bigotry that was surging between the two of them. It was like being hit by the kind of wave at the beach that catches you unprepared, knocks you off your feet. I remember having a feeling of being, well, not quite right.
In that moment, however, I also saw something else. It's hard to describe, but it was there. What I was saw, or rather felt, were the real people behind that rage. An older man, a veteran, proud, perhaps a bit too much so, who couldn't understand why these kids didn't respect him or what he has done in his life, these kids who looked different than him. On the other side, a young man, also proud, yet unsure, feeling the need to prove himself a leader in front of his friends, not wanting to back down to a man who didn't respect him.
They yelled some more and moved away. And I got on the next train.
I could not shake the feelings created by the encounter for the rest of the day. But neither could I forget the sense of seeing the real people hidden behind their anger. I believe with all my heart, that if the two individuals I stood between had been able to see each other as I saw them, something different might have been created in the moment -- a sense of understanding, of the humanity present in each one of us, and how similar, not different, we are, despite the layers of cultural difference that we use to maintain our distance from each other.
We're facing a situation right now where if we're not careful, we could find ourselves falling victim to the same misunderstandings that fueled the incident I witnessed on the subway platform.
We don't understand the Middle East, and the people who live there don't understand us. Our perceptions are colored by movies where Arabs always seem to be terrorists, talk radio, myths about 'jihad,' and little understanding of the religion that forms the core of their cultural experiences. Meanwhile, their view of us is also colored by movies, poverty, a feeling of impotence, and a sense of a lack of respect for them and their world.
If we allow these perceptions to continue, then fear will grown, and after fear comes hatred.
It's not the time for us to yell at each other, but to talk to each other, to learn about each other. Even while we demand justice, we must start a new dialogue, and create a new understanding. Not just with the leaders of these countries, but with the people who live in them. It won't be easy to engage an entire culture, but it must be done. For both our sakes.