We live in a tumultuous world were fantastic events can impact the daily realities of ordinary citizens. Events unfold before our eyes that can forever tarnish our sense of perception if we’re not careful. These are the words that come to mind as I had my interview with the FBI this afternoon. From their side, they may see an incident that raises suspicions, whether they’d like them to be raised or not. On my end of the deal, being scrutinized by the government can be a very uncomfortable situation to be in. Fortunately for both parties involved, we had a few laughs and then went on about our ways. If only all such encounters between divergent parties could be so humorous.
The back story to this short and simple. Recently, for a class assignment, I had photographed some public transportation installations belonging to SEPTA, including a trolley, the trolley tunnel, and the trolley tracks. I can imagine I hear chuckles already – as well we should all chuckle! The following day, I exited the same trolley stop [the same stop I use every day to go to work] only to be greeted by three separate law enforcement agencies: SEPTA, UPenn police, and the Philadelphia Police Department. My initial thought was that they were, “really after someone”, as they were out in force. Little did I know they were looking for me. A brief search ensued, in which I was searched, my contents were searched and then I was questioned by the officers present. After about 15-20 minutes, my story was confirmed and cleared that I was simply a student doing class work and that my appearance had, “raised some red flags”. The officer in question nearly blushed as he apologized, fully aware of what his words were implicating. I laughed with him to diffuse the situation and informed him I understood and that he was only following his procedures. I was discharged there shortly thereafter and thought that the incident was behind me. Little did I know I had popped up on an even bigger radar.
The story unfortunately does not get much more intense from here. The following day, I received a phone call from a detective at the FBI asking if he might schedule an interview with me. Slightly alarmed, I asked what it was he was curious about, at which he explained that he had been informed by the local authorities of the “SEPTA incident”, and that he would like to gather some more information. I agreed and proceeded to seek advice as to how to proceed. It’s not every day that one has a blind date with the FBI.
Through the help of a friend, I contacted the ACLU [of which I would urge other Muslims to consider supporting as this is a wonderful institution], who graciously provided me with an attorney from one of Philadelphia’s top law firms. I spoke with my attorney, who gave me sound counsel and with his advice in hand, we prepared for our meeting. The interim time between the phone call and the interview was filled with nervous speculation. What was it they could want from me? I lead a boring life of blogs and books. Yes, I’ve traveled to Saudi Arabia but so do many other people. Could that be it? Are they fishing for something? Soon enough I would have my answers.
I met with my attorney an hour before the interview and went over various points in detail to prepare myself for any questions they FBI might have. We were prepared for a full-court press. My tie was ironed, my blazer pressed. I was ready. At 11am sharp my phone rang. It was the detective. He said that “they” were ready to meet me. “They”, I thought. There was no mention of more than one officer. Despite this surprise, I put on my poker face and proceed to the interview.
From here, the story concludes with a small chuckle and then fizzles out. Both detectives were courteous and cordial. In the span of about three or four minutes, they asked me much of the same questions the local law enforcement officials had asked: what was I taking pictures of? Why? I provided proof of student ID and explained my course work. The next part was the most uncomfortable part and yet the most humorous – and in that order for the agent and myself. He asked where I was born and then my nationality. I informed him I was born in the United States and that I was African-American. Our eyes met for a moment and then I burst out with a short laugh and said, “I’m not from the Middle-East”. The detective, who seemed exceedingly happy to have made it over this uncomfortable hump replied, “Well, I wasn’t trying to imply anything but you know…, these days. We get a lot of phone calls about Middle-Eastern guys. It takes up a lot of our time”. Myself, my attorney, and the two agents all shared a laugh at how uncomfortable this post-9/11 situation has made people and the types of social avenues it can force us to go down. In short, the detectives were nice people who were only following Bureau procedures and in no time flat I was seeing them and my lawyer to the door.
In conclusion – cooperate. We live in times where many may feel that their liberties are being infringed upon and that’s why we have organizations like the ACLU. And yet, there are realities on the ground, whether we like them or not, and only but talking with one another can we hope to understand each other’s goals and objectives better. And yes, I am glad I’m a black guy! What a civil liberty that’s turning out to be.