Thursday, June 16, 2005

When paranoia prevailed

The incident of a couple of nights ago left me a little shaken. Especially since I've never been abused while alone (but a couple of times when with small groups of Indian friends). I will add that Seattle in particular is largely extremely liberal, and very, very tolerant. And most Americans are largely very friendly, and tolerant. A couple of freaks does not a country make.

However, this reminded me of an incident that happend to four of my very good Indian friends here. When they told me what had happened, I was more scared than I have ever been.

Late last summer, these four (who are/were PhD students here at the University of Washington) decided to go on a small road trip and explore a bit of Eastern Washington, and Idaho. Thorougly enjoying the spectacular scenery of mountains, canyons and rivers, they reach the heart of Idaho, and are near this tiny town of Twin Falls, Idaho (population probably 30000). This is miles from the nearest city (if you can call it that), Boyse, and is really in the midst of vast, empty, beautiful landscape. The claim to fame of the town are the twin waterfalls that fall over cliffs just outside the town. My friends pull over at a scenic view point, to admire the view. One of them is the best photographer I know, and he busily tries to get the best angles of the sunset over a bridge spanning the small canyon. Meanwhile, a car with an elderly white couple in it starts pulling into the view point, suddenly stops, and then rapidly reverses and is drives off.

My friends, satisfied with their excellent photography, move on to the visitor center. There they find out that the river is bone dry, and there isn't even a trickle of water in the waterfall. So they decide to head off and explore some nearby cliffs. They hop into their car, and start munching some Doritos (yuck!). As they are about to start their car, suddenly a couple of police cars pull up, sirens blazing, and a cop announces over his loudspeaker that they need to stay where they are, with their hands visible. My friend freezes with the Dorito half way into his mouth. The cop walks up, with another standing behind as "back up". My friends are questioned. "Where are you from", "What are you doing here", "Are you carrying any firearms"!

Apparently, some couple had called the cops, and said that they had seen some Arabs standing near the bridge taking pictures, and had overheard them talking of blowing up the bridge! Yes, in Twin Falls, Idaho, of all places! I can only imagine how dumbstruck my friends must have been when they heard this.

The cop took their IDs, left for a few minutes, and came back after having verified that they were indeed PhD students of impeccable standing at the UW. He was very polite, and apologized for the trouble caused. The cops pulled out, and these four started the car and drove off. They found four other police cars parked at strategic points, in case they tried to "get away".

They didn't stop driving until they reached Seattle, 500 miles away.


ashvin said...

That's quite a story ! Just this morning on NPR there was a piece about photographers (of various hues) getting pulled over for similar reasons:

Their conservative take on it was that the laws hadn't quite caught up with the post-911 world. The case you described seems especially extreme though: probably because they were brown.

Also, I don't know if you heard about the film-maker Rakesh Sharma's similar experience during his visit to NYC:

Nothing like this (or your scary experience of a couple of days ago) has happened to me in my 9 yrs of living in this country though.

Sunil said...

Ashvin....thanks a lot for that link on what happened to Rakesh Sharma. He had visited Seattle (for a film screening of the Final Solutions), and had mentioned this incident...but not nearly in such detail.


The constant paranoia and hidden rascism is what's really, really troubling.

Dilip D'Souza said...


I think the paranoia is inevitable, post 9/11, and people who look different are going to have to deal with it. It will die down eventually (who looks at Japanese-Americans suspiciously today?), but in the meantime there will be incidents like what happened to your friends.

One from me.

Sunil said...

I don't see why the paranoia is inevitable, atleast to this extent. Part of the reason for the paranoia is that there hasn't been any real effort to prevent it.......and the media has played a very important role in creating this paranoia.
One hopes it will die down eventually.....but in cases where there is a distinct racial (color) or religious trend....the paranoia invariably lasts longer. We just need to look around the world to see that. And a large part of the reason for that really comes from what we learn at school or from our own families and friends. These things take a looooong time to change.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you sunil on media being the culprit for increase in the paranoia. But I also think politicians(or their stategy) played important part in that. Classic case being the threat level increased from Blue to Yellow, Yellow to Gold ... (I am not accurate on colors or may be there was really a need to change it).
On the experience that u had, I too had some of them but all the time(not most) it was after dark and the accuser was drunk. These two(Darkness and Alchohol) bring the best out of you :)

Sunil said...

yes Varnam...political strately unfortunately played a big role in increasing this paranoia.

However, though some people (like the person abusing me) abuse when drunk or in the dark, most such incidences of paranoia (like the one in this post) are not by drunkards......but by very "respectable" citizens...

gawker said...

er..Idaho is a hotbed of white supremacists .. I thought it was a well known fact.

Anonymous said...

If you go back to India and live, you won't have these problems anymore. :)

Anonymous said...

Well this story is less offensive than your beer bottle experience.
Be careful in that neighborhood, avoid it if you can.
The cops did what they had to when they got a call like this.
Imagine what the indian cops would do.
Even if they responded switfly they wouldnt have the means to verify anything. You'd be held for hours if not a day or more. I was held in laddakh for 14 hrs b/c they thought i was engaged in something suspicious. i had a GPS and a digital camera and extra laptop batteries all of which were novelty back then This despite being an indian citizen. And i dont blame them.
Imagine if it had been real terrorist doing some thing not so nice.
Think about it they called your univiersity and verified you were a student.
When i moved to the us from india my highschool in US wanted to verify my indian school and they did not even get a response from my school in india(The not so cheap Delhi public school).