06/20/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2014

Can You Pre-empt a Hate Crime?

One week ago, a friend of mine walked across the street of her Manhattan apartment to a café she often goes to. As she entered, she noticed a gentle sable-colored leashed puppy attracting much attention. Everyone was petting that puppy. The owner, a handsome, well-groomed man in his late forties, stood against the wall, smiling kindly. She smiled briefly as she stood off to the side, waiting for her coffee to go, when the man approached her. Actually he cornered her.

"Why are you here. Go back to Pakistan..." he hissed.

It took her a moment to realize he was talking to her. And that people still said such things. She froze and said nothing.

Once her coffee arrived, she snatched it from the counter, and whipped around to the man who just hissed at her, who by now returned to his puppy admirers.

"I'm not even Pakistani!" she cried.

A logical retort. She's Indian.

But she had to brush off this disturbing incident; really there was no room for it, she immediately decided. She'd just gotten over a illness much too devastating for any thirty-five year old woman to endure. She'd just have to let it go. A few days later, as she was leaving her apartment building, she saw a man heading out the lobby who bore much too striking of a resemblance to the man from the café. She immediately pulled her doorman aside. "Does that guy live here?" She's very friendly with her doorman, her super, really all the people who take care of things.

"Yes he does," the doorman answered.

She froze. He did look like him though. But everyone looks like someone in New York. There was only one way to know for sure. "Does he a puppy? Brownish colored?" she asked curiously, waiting patiently for the answer.

"Yeah, that's right," the doorman answered, noticing her face went blank. "Why?"

After a moment, she told him the story. She was almost embarrassed.

"You know what's strange?" the doorman said.

"What?" she asked.

"He's a really nice guy..."


"and he works for one of those major civil liberties organization."

She stood, stunned. They both were dumbfounded.

Why is it that the real shock value in random acts of racism comes more from the source out of which it comes, than the statements themselves. It's always comes from someone you never think. And maybe that's why it's so shocking. And why we sometimes talk ourselves out of feeling like anything happened at all.

She wondered if she should file a complaint with the super like the doorman suggested. I wasn't sure if that would help, I told her, but mace definitely would. And then I almost wanted to apologize. After all, I'm Arab; wasn't it those crazies of my people who started this mess with 9/11? That all brown people should go back to where they came from, which apparently is Pakistan? I mean that must have been why that man said what he said to her, I logically thought.

And I remembered my own experiences with racism after 9/11. And I called my mother for solace, telling her what happened to my friend. "Well," she said as a matter of fact, "this guy has a mental illness." Everyone, my mom thinks, has a mental illness. "And I'm glad it didn't happen to you."

"But Mom," I persisted, "haven't we already the price?" Our country of Iraq is currently imploding with bloodshed, Iraqi against Iraqi, the worst civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. The US should never have divided the country this way during the decade they occupied it. If only they bothered to understand it.

"Price?" my mother barked. "What did Iraq have to do with 9/11?"

In that moment even I forgot the truth and I played into this man's prejudice, again trying to find some logical reason for it.

And now my friend is probably sitting in her apartment, searching for mace online, trying to calm down her boyfriend who wants to kick this guy's butt. But her boyfriend's Indian. So it probably wouldn't matter anyway. At any rate, she'll wind up taking all the necessary logical precautions a woman living alone should take--filing a complaint, looking for other minorities in her building this man has verbally assaulted, telling her super who will most likely speak to him. And perhaps she'll transform from a sweet girl to a hardened woman, expecting racism now wherever she goes. At least she'll know what to say. And she'll have mace. And while she waits for her super to talk to him...well who knows if that will work... she knows every time she sees this man, heaven forbid in an elevator, she'll look at him dead on in the eye, completely unafraid...and if he so much as breathes on her or looks at her one second too long....Then she'll strike.

Because in the end, nothing about the battles we fight against racism are ever logical. But maybe if we didn't regret not acting in the first place, they would be.