Paranoia is rampant in our nation. I, too, have fallen victim to its clutches and have made an effort to escape a mindset that suspects everyone as a terrorist. Recently, a day spent in Atlanta changed that.
Frothing at the mouth to escape the humdrum of Cullowhee, I looked forward to the visit. I had no idea that I would return more fearful than ever.
Recent events spiked my curiosity about terrorists and bombings. I had to see Centennial Olympic Park, the site of the 1996 bombing. I saw the commemorative ‘eternal flame’ before going on to see the fountains. A bicycle cop shaded himself in a nearby copse of trees. The familiar Olympic Rings blasted water like a musical geyser birthing myriad temporary rainbows. Children slalomed through shoots of water in squealing bliss. Behind the fountains, a couple piggybacked their twins en route to a family picnic. To me, this showed America returning to normalcy. My quelled paranoia was about to be renewed.
The temperature that day hovered in the low eighties. Inside the park’s snack shop the air felt much better. I had to wash red stickiness off my fingers thanks to a cherry Icee. What I saw when I walked into the bathroom short-circuited my breath.
A Middle Eastern man wearing a turban and thick military issue coveralls huddled in the corner. He riffled through a concealed backpack. Sirens wailed in my head. This can’t be happening. I craved humdrum Cullowhee like never before. I stood frozen as the nearby statues. Perhaps he is just a mechanic on his lunch break, I thought. I am not familiar with Atlanta, but I do not think any garages are close to the park. A park that had already seen a terrorist incident. I felt as if my skull were bathed in molten lead. I was hesitant and afraid.
Should I run? Should I tackle this guy? What if he’s harmless? Why is he wearing coveralls in eighty degree weather, and why aren’t they dirty? What’s in that bag? What if this is my last day on earth? Kids in fountains. Babies on piggyback. One cop, now blocks away. These thoughts swam through gathering nausea.
Others may opine that what I did was wrong. But a voice told me that if I did not investigate, then all those carefree sprinkler chasers and I could be killed.
I stopped wondering why this guy was here or who he was. All I saw was an enemy that unfortunately is branded to my brain after September’s horror.
I yelled just behind the guy’s ear. He started, tossing his backpack (which contained his laundry) into the air. He shuddered in the corner, holding me with dark saucers for eyes.
This probably was not the first time someone had accosted him for his race. His look wounded me for my suspicion. I apologized profusely and helped gather his clothes, which was an excuse to inspect his bag. I guess I’m just unaccustomed to city ways. Cullowhee does not have homeless people stealing away to the solace of public bathrooms to clean themselves and their sparse belongings. All I saw were explosions and blood and babies.
I am not proud of the anguish I caused him. However, given similar circumstances I would absolutely do it again. Because in that moment, I ceased to be paranoid.
I now think of myself as Constantly Vigilant. I shall suspect everyone because constant vigilance is now the price of freedom in our fearful New World. And like it or not, we are all in war. ‘Collateral damage’ and ‘civilian casualties’ are terms that only we understand. Terrorists care for them only as propaganda. All Americans are targets. If this is not lucidly apparent, just turn on the television and look again at those great towers torn asunder.
You may prefer to call me paranoid, but one great thing about paranoid people is this: they stay alive!