Thursday, May 25, 2006

Panic on a Florida School Bus

Let's imagine a scenario for a moment....

You're a young man, 20 years old. You've pushed yourself through high school, and after a lot of convincing of your parents, you have been given the opportunity to study abroad in a far-away country. This far-away place is strange to you, the customs are strange, the clothing people wear is strange, and even the language they speak is strange. In fact, you're worried that you may not succeed in your program of study because of all the cultural and language differences, so you sign up for a 1 year program to study the strange language, and become acclimatized to the strange culture and customs before you begin your program of study.

You've been in this strange place for a full school year from September to May, and have found it very peculiar: the way people walk, the way they interact in public. One of the strangest things you've seen is that every day as you're walking to school, you walk past a large group of people about your age gathered at a street corner just at the edge of your university campus, where a funny-looking orange bus picks them up and takes them to some unknown destination. You are curious about who this group is, and what this orange bus is for - you've never seen an orange bus on the university campus, and have never seen any of your classmates arriving in one.

One day in May, after your classes are mostly wrapped up for the year, you decide to find out what is up with this funny looking orange bus and this crowd waiting on the street corner. One morning, you and a friend of yours wait around alongside this group, and when the orange bus pulls up, you get on with them to see where it's going. You're surprised when the bus driver barely notices you getting on the bus, and more surprised when he doesn't make you pay a fare, and you and your friend sit in the back of the bus laughing and talking to yourselves about it. Of course, this surprise pales when the bus arrives at its destination (a local high school), and you and your friend are abruptly removed from the bus and hauled off to jail in the back of a police car.

If you and your friend were from Europe or perhaps Japan or China, you would probably not have had such an unwelcome reception at the high school, and the whole incident would have been laughed off as a simple act of ignorance by a pair of hapless visitors. But, you and your friend are not from Europe or Japan or China, you are from Saudi Arabia, the language you were speaking in the back of the bus with your friend is Arabic... and as a result you are both in a whole heap of trouble.

The two men are named Mana Saleh Almanajam (23 years old) and Shaker Mohsen Alsidran (20 years old), both shown at left, both enrolled in the full year English as a Second Language pre-university program at Southern Florida University in Tampa. The bus they boarded was one that picked up high school students from a street corner right at the edge of the USF campus, taking them to a local school called Wharton High School. More details are shown here and here.

Several bloggers, most notably Michelle Malkin, have talked about this issue and raised the spectre of possible terrorist attacks, considering the two men lied by initially telling the police they were from Morocco (when they were from Saudi Arabia), and making up a few versions of why they were on that bus. I personally think the incident is much more benign than this:

1. The two are simple college students, from a far-away place. They probably had no idea that the funny-looking orange bus was only for students of a particular high school. It's not as if there is a sign on the bus saying "Private Property - do not enter", the only words on it are "School Bus", and perhaps a sign indicating the route.
2. Being young and a bit reckless, they decided to go find out where the bus went, and perhaps explore Tampa a bit, not knowing this was not a permitted activity.
3. The bus driver did not challenge them when they first got on the bus, and allowed them to get in and sit down. Perhaps if the bus driver or one of the students on the bus had told the two men they were not allowed to be on the bus, they would have left.
4. After being pulled off the bus and questioned, they made up a few excuses for being on the bus. They might have done this because they knew they didn't have a good reason to be on the bus at all. Perhaps they were just riding it to see where it goes.

It is truly unfortunate that, 5 years after 9/11, we still need to be so paranoid about anything that an Arab does in this country. As Arab visiting students, these two men were expected by the system to be virtual house hermits, to stay below the radar, to never do anything unusual, and never bring any attention to themselves. Thus, when they made a simple mistake, they were considered suspected terrorists, and the full heavy hand of the law was brought down on them.