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Emergency Medicine News

Narrative Medicine

‘Are You a Terrorist?’

Nagpal, Ameet MD, MED

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doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000530698.69540.2b

    I was fortunate enough to be able to go to my friend's wedding in Indianapolis in October. My 3-year-old son called it “India with Apples.” I've known this friend since I was in first grade, and my parents and his parents are good friends. After the celebration, I walked back to the hotel with my father. We were at the revolving door when a man said hello. I said hello back. Then he asked, “Are you a terrorist?”

    My father wears a turban. He moved to the United States in 1978. He has been the Grand Marshall of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Yulan, NY, a small town near where he lives. He has been instrumental in the growth of Orange County, and has been the president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, Lion's Club, and Rotary Club. But who cares? That shouldn't matter.

    I confronted this man in a way that I hadn't felt necessary for 15 years, when I felt this type of hate after September 11. I felt obnoxious when I tried to justify how American I was by telling him about being born in Minneapolis and living in Texas. When he told me he served in the military, I obligatorily said, “Thank you for your service.”

    I have plenty of friends who served in the military because I live in San Antonio. Both of my grandfathers served in the British military during World War II for the Allied powers. Again, none of this should matter because there is no circumstance under which one human being should make a remark like that to a stranger when it will obviously make him uncomfortable.

    Many of my parents' friends jumped to my aid because they remembered me as a teenager and felt that I needed help, and they thought we were all being attacked. My father, in particular, was stunned because he had spent his life trying to give me the best life he could.

    Despite our dissension, this man saw nothing wrong with asking if I was a terrorist. Several people were videotaping us because, I believe, they were flabbergasted by the actions of this person. I was, and I hope they come forward with their videos to educate others.

    I am worried now that I never worried about this. I told this person, this other human being who thought it was OK to start a conversation with “Are you a terrorist?” that the thing I was most worried about was that I have a 3-year-old son whom I had to teach about racism, and he did not seem to be bothered by this. I hope that his daughter, who is in the medical field, sees this and apologizes for her father's hateful message. I hope that she teaches her children not to hate. I hope that she teaches her children respect. I hope her children don't carry such vitriol that their initial response to a man with a turban is a comment like this. This man said his intention was sarcasm, but I am a sarcastic person and I have never thought to act this way.

    It is not OK to ask another human being if he might be the depravity associated with the worst of our society. I am fortunate to have been around other like-minded people who came to my aid; ultimately, the man who said these terrible things agreed that he was wrong.

    But here's where things get tricky. Three weeks after this incident, I was seeing patients back in the clinic in San Antonio. I am a pain medicine physician practicing in an academic center. One of the fellows had just walked out of an exam room to discuss a patient with me. I told him that I would see her and that he could move on to the next patient. I walked in and said, “Hi, I'm Dr. Nagpal. Nice to meet you.” She said, “I know, you were just in here.”

    It is true that the fellow who had just seen the patient was Indian, Sikh, bearded, and approximately the same height as me. It is also true that we were both wearing scrubs. I explained the situation to her, and she said, “I don't know. You all look the same.”

    This statement would not have affected me at all if not for the incident that I had just had in the hotel in Indianapolis. But thoughts immediately raced through my head. Who all look the same? Doctors? Indian doctors? Men? Indian men? Men with beards? I immediately assumed, and still do, that she meant that all Indian men look the same, and I took it as a derogatory statement. Maybe that's not how she meant it, but that's how I perceived it and how I still do. It was a comment that would have never bothered me before, but now it does. More importantly, did it change my behavior as a physician? Will similar instances cause me to treat patients who make similar statements differently in the future? I certainly hope not, but it would be foolish of me not to consider the possibility of a new unconscious bias that I may have developed when I treat patients who I may perceive as racist in any way, even if they are not racist.

    So this is the thing that is happening to me. I have had to question my own day-to-day life and even my own decision-making because of the thoughtless comment made by another human who had no idea how it may have affected the lives of others. For what it's worth, I still have not discussed the incident with my father, who I believe is too embarrassed to talk about it. I hope the man who said the awful things he said apologizes again, and I am more than happy to hear the apologies of his family and friends. His words were not OK, and his defense of his bizarre thoughts was not either, whether it was in Indianapolis or anywhere else in the world. I am happy to accept his apology, but I am not happy to accept his apology and then move on because I will always be worried about whether my 3-year-old son will have to suffer what I suffered in front of my own father. I will always be worried about whether it will cause me to have a lapse in judgment.

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