May 21st, 2013.
I got randomly stopped by two U.S. marshals and questioned for at least 30 minutes while waiting for my train at Reagan National Airport. I felt humiliated and threatened, and, later on, I realized that the experience shook me on a very deep level.
It was probably 22:30 and the Yellow train had just passed. The station got pleasantly empty again. I was sitting and waiting for the Blue train.
I was staring mindlessly into the middle distance until I decided to snap some pictures with my iPhone instead. It was a vacant and pretty urban scene, and I will at least get 60 likes, I thought to myself. The station was slowly getting filled with passengers again, and now was the time to take pictures, I thought, before the tranquility I was trying to capture is disturbed.
A tall, built man dressed in civilian clothes and carrying a backpack appeared right next to me like a ghost. I was focused on my phone the entire time, and at that particular moment I was putting my phone back inside of my backpack. Another man, similar in size, stood on the opposite side. I was still seated and basically surrounded by two, towering big men and I did not have time to even form a thought as to what exactly was about to happen.
The questioning started immediately. Marshal J.A. was aggressive and confrontational right from the start.
JA: What are you taking pictures of? (Very aggressive tone. At that point I felt I was about to get beaten up. I had absolutely no context.)
Me: Err… the airport?
JA: And why are you doing that?
Me: For fun, I guess. (At that point my mind was still racing. I was trying to make sense of the situation and trying to determine what my next move would be in case they assaulted me.)
JA: Why would you take pictures of the airport for fun?
Me: Why do you care?
JA: Because I do. (That’s when I realized that they were either vigilante nuts or undercover cops.)
Me: Well, like I said, I like taking pictures.
JA: Like I said, why would you take pictures of the airport?
Me: Why is this happening right now? It’s not because of my racial background, or my beard maybe?
JA: No it’s because what you’re doing is very suspicious.
Me: And the fact I’m brown has nothing to do with it? (I was terrified saying that and I’m sure he noticed my neck veins pulsating… Surely there must’ve been a slight quiver to my voice as well.)
JA: Who cares, I’m brown. What’s concerning was the fact that you took multiple pictures. (He definitely could’ve been from the Balkans, or maybe Latin America… he could’ve been from anywhere come to think of it. Racially ambiguous features but white skin color.)
JA: WHY DID YOU TAKE MULTIPLE PICTURES!?
Me: BECAUSE I WAS TRYING TO GET IT STRAIGHT!
JA: “Trying to get it straight…” Trying to get it straight for what?
Other Marshal (OM): Do you have any form of ID?
Me: Yes I do.
OM: May I see it?
JA: We’re not messing around here. (That’s when he flashes his ID… Fully fledged U.S. Marshal ID.)
I hand OM my ID
Me: I can’t believe this is seriously happening right now…
JA: There are a lot of BAAAD people who want to do BAAAD things to our country. (He says that as he looks me straight in the eyes.)
I decided not to say anything.
OM: Sir where did you come from?
JA: So what are these pictures for? Who takes pictures of these kinds of things?
Me: I was going to post them on Instagram. Heard of it?
JA: What for?
Me: To get “likes”.
Me: To get “likes”.
JA: From whom?
Me: My fans (Freudian slip. My vanity coming to the surface here.)
JA: What fans?
Me: My friends, my followers.
JA: Why are you here?
Me: To visit my sister.
JA: Where does she live?
JA: What does she do?
Me: May I see your ID again?
That’s when I got his name. He kept his arm stretched out until I moved my head back. OM offered to show me his, but he pulled it away very quickly and I could not catch his name. I got the sense that he was deliberately hasty. I thanked them.
JA: So what does she do?
Me: She’s raising two kids.
JA: Where does she live?
Me: Fairfax… Virginia.
JA: And what do you do?
Me: Nothing. (I thought was asking about what I did in Washington, for some reason.)
OM: Sir when did you get here? (Now he’s crouched and is taking notes.)
Me: Probably 21:50, it was an hour late.
OM: And what do you do?
JA: He’s unemployed.
Me: I’m not unemployed. I work overseas.
JA: Overseas where?
Here we go…
Me: The West Bank, Palestine.
JA: Doing what?
I was struggling with my decision to give them more information. I did not know what rights I had in that situation, and I simply wanted it to be over. I had been traveling and I was extremely tired. I was scared and I just wanted it all to end. I wanted to go home.
Me: Program manager at a non-profit working on export development, market analyses, and export promotion. Some projects are funded by USAID and CIDA.
OM: (Addressing his partner) US what?
JA: He works for USAID… It’s part of our “soft power”.
Me: I don’t work for them. They fund some of our projects.
JA: All the same.
OM: What does CIDA stand for?
Me: Canadian International Development Agency… Also the EU, they fund some of our projects.
OM is still crouched and taking some notes. Some time passes by and I’m staring into the middle distance again, looking at the same scene I was trying to capture with my phone. Two marshals standing and sitting on either side of me, people starting to fill up the station, and the most worried and disgusted looks coming my way each time a passenger passed by our little get-together. Not the most tranquil of scenes.
JA: Where do you live? Actually (now addressing his partner) did you get his address?
OM: Yea, Boca Raton.
JA: That’s not Miami. (Now turned to me) That’s NOT Miami.
Me: That’s how I refer to it.
JA: Do you come here often.
Me: No. I used to live in D.C.
JA: You used to live here and you find it interesting enough to take pictures of the place?
Me: I barely ever stopped at National.
JA: I just missed my train because of this.
Me: I missed MY train.
JA: Don’t take pics with your iPhone for your fans next time. Who uses an iPhone? (Staring me down.)
Me: Is that part of your training? Being mean?
JA: Get a real camera to take pictures with.
Me: Yea, that wouldn’t be suspicious at all…
He stares at me some more. My small, and only, victory.
OM: Here you go Sir.
At that point the Yellow train was arriving and I decided to hop on it anyway and to get to L’Enfant and switch from there. I stand up at this point and swing my backpack on my shoulder.
OM: Sir your bag is partially open.
Me: Oh, thank you.
OM: We’re really sorry but for security purposes we had to do all this.
Me: That’s OK, I understand.
JA: Have a good night.
I walk away without addressing him.
I get it. I’m Middle-Eastern looking and I was taking pics late at night of a train station at an airport for no apparent reason. “Multiple pictures” for that matter. I get it, and it kind of is commendable that they’re able to track such behavior.
But, I can’t help but feel like I was violated. Would this have happened had I been white? Or Asian? Or black? Or a woman? Was the arrogant contempt that JA displayed really necessary? Was it a classic good-cop-bad-cop situation? But OM was barely saying anything. He was very reserved, and I got the impression that he didn’t want me to be going through any of it. Maybe it was good-cop-bad-cop…
I get stopped crossing into Jordan and I am questioned for hours by their intelligence people almost every time (and that’s my home country). I get questioned by Israeli intelligence when crossing into Palestine, every time, for obvious reasons (my Palestinian origins being one of them).
I strongly identify with American culture and values. I like the anti-political sentiment in American society (I’m from the Middle-East, everything is relative), and the individualism that is valued more greatly that any collective good.
To some extent, those two marshals stripped away the sense of belonging that I had finally secured for myself.
I feel unwanted by Jordanians, I am disdained by Israelis, and have not “struggled enough” to be considered Palestinian. Now, I’m too suspicious for America. Sometimes, I’m not sure where I belong anymore.
The thing I struggled most with, however, was the absurd fact that I only got 12 likes.