Wednesday, May 20, 2009

If You See Something Odd, Report It

I was in an unusual situation today. I took the spouse to a suburban mall, and while waiting for the hairdresser to work her magic, I did what I usually do and walked around the entire mall a couple of times as a way to work in some exercise instead of being gassed by the fumes being emitted from the salon. As I walked by the main entrance to the mall, I noted three gentlemen come in. All where Arabic, all were wheeling suitcases, and all appeared like they had just got off the plane from the Middle East. Then they separated and each headed towards different areas of the mall. A bit farther along I saw two other gentlemen with backpacks walking towards me and they too were speaking Arabic.
After the conference last week, I was in a hyper state of alertness anyway so the little alarm bells were going off almost immediately. First, this was a very suburban mall, far away from the city and the international airport. Second, this area is almost entirely all white with a smattering of Asians, a few blacks, and even fewer Arabs. Third, of the Arab men I know, they don't go to the mall unless accompanying their families and this is almost always done on the weekend, not mid week.
So I quickly debated what to do. I didn't want to sound like a racist and report people just because they are Arab. Then I considered the odds of five men at this particular mall all speaking Arabic, carrying suitcases and backpacks, and having just come from the Middle East (I didn't know this for sure but when people come from that particular part of the world they are darker and have a particular smell about them. This isn't to say that we don't smell--friends who go to Asia from the States are almost immediately identified as "not locals" even though they are from those countries because they have a "lighter" look from being in the states and they have a different "smell".).
So I continued to debate the situation for a few more minutes, and the words of a Scotland Yard detective who spoke at the conference kept ringing in my ears..."if you see something, report it. After an incident people always report seeing unusual things prior to the incident but they didn't want to report it in case they were wrong...better to be wrong than dead." "One briefcase bomb can level a small house, suitcase bombs can level a small building, a van full of explosive can take out a large building--think Oklahoma City bombing." Then my imagination went on tilt and I imagined these people each placing their bags in strategic locations around this large mall, detonating them, and leveling the entire mall and surrounding buildings. Better to be wrong than dead.
I then found a security officer and told him that I wanted to bring something to his attention. I kind of felt like I should have been wearing my tin hat as I rambled on about the details that I had seen, but as soon as I quit rambling, he said that he had already contacted a couple of the men because they were smoking too close to the entryway doors. He said that he had spoken to them and they told him they had just arrived from Egypt and were in the area for a conference. They had taken a bus out to the suburbs and were going to meet their ride at the mall.
I guess the moral of this story is that it is better to feel like a dork for reporting something that turns out to be nothing than to not say anything and watch your community being blown up repeatedly on CNN a la the World Trade Center bombing.


  1. This is a tough one. We all would like to avoid ridicule, but we'd like to do the right thing as well. Sounds like you did.

    Of course, I know someone who was questioned as a pedophile simply for being a white male, with no children, at a playground. The line between "profiling" and "doing the right thing" is so incredibly fine.

  2. This is an interesting post, and something many observant people face in these times.

    We tend to notice things that are outside our usual experience. But the question is whether to act on potential interpretations of what we see.

    I think if you weigh the potential for embarrasment vs the potential for a major terrorist attack, you did the right thing.

  3. A few days ago I bought a 1 oz silver babtism coin on e bay, today I received a neetley opened undamaged recorded delivery parcel sealed in a plastic wrapper with an apology for damage caused to the contents, the coin was'nt there. How strange is that?