My name is the John Smith of the Middle East.'
When Shakespeare asked, "What's in a name?" he clearly hadn't envisaged the post-9/11 world and how it affects men like Omar Ahmad.
And he's not even THE Omar Ahmed, co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who became a lightning rod for criticism after he was quoted saying Islam should be America's dominant religion.
He just happens to have the same first name and very close last name to the infamous Omar Ahmed.
"I get his hate mail all the time," said Ahmad, who is in the identity business. The 42-year-old former Napster executive operates a Redwood City business, Trusted ID, that helps people protect themselves from identity theft.
"Unfortunately, my name is the John Smith of the Middle East," said the Ohio-born son of Pakistani immigrants.
Because of Ahmad's name, he is routinely selected for lengthy identity checks at ticket counters and prohibited from online or kiosk check-in. "To be clear, this is a knucklehead policy," he said.
What's especially enervating to Ahmad is that he only gets picked on by one airline: Southwest. It got to the point where he wrote a letter to the company, posted on altmuslim.com, blasting the company for overzealously using a passenger screening list provided by the Transportation Security Administration.
Southwest Airlines says it can't speak for other airlines, but it is bound by TSA rules and has no discretion on how to interpret those rules.
While they may not have room for interpretation, airlines do use different types of software for matching passengers' names to the list, said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.
"Some match four letters, some use a seven-letter match," he said. "The way it's applied, it would directly impact the way each passenger is treated from airline to airline."
Of course, consistency can cut both ways, and Ahmad believes singling people out based upon their names doesn't make air travel safer. He said he's a pilot and can see why that might arouse concern. But no, he asserts, it's all about the name.
"If I was somebody bent on doing something bad, I don't think I would use the name Omar Ahmad to get on an airplane," Ahmad said.
Erik N. Nelson
MARY ANNE O'RORKE
'You can't have people stopping their lives. You can't.'
A crumpled paper bag left on a BART train is most likely someone's forgotten lunch, but Mary Anne O'Rorke can't be certain about that anymore.
A BART driver of 15 years, she now treats every unclaimed bag, box and package on her train with caution, picking them up herself to see what's inside or calling for assistance.
Since 9/11, O'Rorke's job hasn't been the same.
She thinks about how she would react if there was a bomb on her train or if she pulled into a station and saw people keeling over from poison gas.
"I watch people on the train. I see what they are carrying. It's not that I didn't watch before, but now my focus is added to any terrorist acts," she said.
Suspicious behavior ranges from absent-minded passengers leaving behind their luggage to commuters praying on BART. Once she shut down her train after spotting white powder on a passenger's seat. It turned out to be laundry detergent.
She wants more BART police to patrol stations and walk through trains, and she advocates for heightened security at work.
"If anything is going to happen, we're going to be there, involved," said O'Rorke, who was born in Brooklyn and put herself through college by driving a Manhattan taxi.
From her seat at the front of a BART train, O'Rorke considers herself on the front lines of America's fight against terrorism. But she isn't willing to let fear take over. She displays a toughness common among native New Yorkers and is defiant about living on her own terms.
"You can't have people stopping their lives. You can't. And right now this is part of our lives," she said.
'You start to wonder, should I just stay at home?'
When Sukhdev Bainiwal drove to work Sept. 11, 2001, he knew the Twin Towers had tumbled to the ground, but he hadn't yet grasped how the terrorist attack would affect him.
That would come a week later in a Home Depot parking lot. A high-school boy spotted Bainiwal, who is Sikh, got in his face, pointed at his turban and snarled, "Why don't you take that piece of (expletive) and take it back where it belongs."
The abuse kept coming.
In 2003 at a gas station, a man drove up to Bainiwal and threatened, "Did you kiss your family goodbye this morning?"
The next year, stuck in traffic on Highway 101, a man swerved his car up inches from Bainiwal's and hollered, "Hey, (expletive) A-rab. What the (expletive) are you doing here?"
"You start to wonder, should I just stay at home?" said Bainiwal, a 40-year-old computer engineer who moved to the Bay Area as a child in 1977.
When Iranian students took American embassy workers hostage in 1979, some of Bainiwal's high school classmates started calling him Ayatollah Khomeini, after Iran's bearded then-supreme leader. In 2001, Bainiwal's 10-year-old son was punched and taunted as "The son of Osama bin Laden." During the build-up to the ensuing war in Iraq, classmates decided he was Saddam Hussein's nephew.
"For years I kind of felt welcomed everywhere," Bainiwal said. "All of a sudden it seemed we were going back to that era again. I realized nothing had improved here."
To make life safer for himself and his family, Bainiwal, like many leaders at his Sikh temple in Fremont, has taken the initiative to inform people about the Sikh religion, customs and practices.
He teaches about six seminars a year at local schools and works with other ethnic groups and the police as a member of Network for a Hate Free Community.
With information from Bainiwal, San Jose police tracked down the man who threatened him on the freeway and made him write an apology.
"I feel like we're starting to make people more aware," Bainiwal said. Although he'd be hesitant to take his family on a road trip through parts of Middle America, Bainiwal said he never lets fear get in the way of his day-to-day life. "This is my country. I'm not going to be locked in anywhere."
'I had known Jason Dahl, captain on Flight 93.'
It was 7:30 a.m. when United Airlines pilot Steve Derebey eased his Boeing 757 into the air on Sept. 11, 2001.
The flight was uneventful, but when he landed in Chicago's busy O'Hare International Airport an hour later, all the waiting-area television consoles were oddly turned off.
"Everyone was gathered in a bar lounge that did have a TV on. We watched the second airplane go into the tower" as Derebey and his fellow viewers gasped.
"When the second one hit, you could see that it was an airliner, and it was one of ours," he said.
"Life has certainly changed a lot since then," the 54-year-old pilot said via cell phone during a break between flights in Burbank.
"Obviously, the first thing and foremost thing is, it affected everybody really deeply emotionally and psychologically. I had known Jason Dahl, captain on Flight 93" that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after being hijacked. He had gotten to know Dahl at United's training center in Denver.
"Jason trained me how to fly the 727, and that was very significant. That was very painful."
What followed added to that pain waves of layoffs in the airline industry. "It affected many of us, because United did a severe downsizing," said Derebey, who serves as an officer of the United unit of the Air Line Pilot's Association. United parked more than 150 airplanes and furloughed more than 2,000 of its 10,000 pilots. Today, only about 6,500 pilots fly for United.
Derebey now flies a smaller Boeing 737, which relegates him to a lower pay classification. He flies a West Coast route with daily stops at San Francisco International Airport.
Since Jason Dahl's murder as 9/11 hijackers took over his plane, remaining pilots have demanded the right to arm themselves to protect themselves, the passengers and the crew.
"To me its one of the most effective deterrents that we have," Derebey said. "It's unlikely that the scenario that happened on Sept. 11 would have ever happened, just because the terrorists would not have known what was behind that door."
Derebey, whose union was instrumental in congressional passage of the armed-pilots law, would not say whether he had armed himself. "If the bad guys knew who we were, it would defeat the purpose of the program. You'll never know if the pilot who's on your flight is carrying a weapon."
Erik N. Nelson
'They'll be monitoring us for the rest of our lives.'
When Division Chief Harold Schapelhouman saw the Twin Towers burning on TV, he knew that he'd be making a trip to New York City and soon.
He thought back to the Oklahoma City bombings: the smell of human decomposition, the sight of bodies sandwiched by thousands of pounds of concrete, people flattened thin as cardboard.
Schapelhouman, the head of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, leads Task Force Three, an elite, national search-and-rescue unit. Their obligation is to be prepared to show up "anytime, anywhere."
When disaster strikes, Schapelhouman and Task Force Three are usually there. They are one of 28 emergency service teams under the Office of Homeland Security.
A couple weeks ago, members of the Task Force were in Atlanta, preparing for Hurricane Ernesto. Last year, members of Task Force Three were in New Orleans. And five years ago, they were in New York City.
For 16 days, Schapelhouman and a team of 67 men worked at ground zero, digging away at what they called the Pile, the smoldering heap of pulverized metal, detritus and human remains where the towers once stood.
There they worked 20-hour days, caught a few hours sleep beneath tables at the Javits Convention Center and returned for their next shift at the Pile where the bodies "were in the dust that you breathed in and the dust that settled on you."
When Schapelhouman and his team returned to the Bay Area, they were considered heroes. There were invitations for parades and fundraising banquets and memorial services. At one event, Schapelhouman sat across the table from former President Clinton.
Things were strange, and then they got stranger. At an event in Napa to honor the search-and-rescue team, the team members realized that some of their ranks were missing. Some, it turned out, were sick with pneumonia; others suffered chronic nosebleeds. In all, nearly 30 percent were missing.
It turned out, some 70 percent became ill after New York. Many suffered what came to be knows as the "WTC cough" a dry hacking cough that erupts in spasms.
Schapelhouman still has the cough.
Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the University of California, Davis, have conducted studies on the airborne toxins sampled from ground zero. But Schapelhouman leans toward the conclusions presented by the UC Davis study: The silicon matter at ground zero
was so fine that even the task force's high-tech respiratory equipment couldn't protect them.
Just the other day, Schapelhouman opened his mail and saw that it was time for his annual physical via Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, which is studying 9/11 rescue workers.
"We're guinea pigs," he said in an interview a few years ago. "They'll be monitoring us for the rest of our lives."
'9/11 ... split people's lives into before and after.'
For a few moments, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was like any other for Shereen Khan, a U.S.-born Muslim. Then life for the Walnut Creek teenager, whose parents came to the Bay Area from Pakistan, was turned upside down. "9/11 may have happened five years ago, but it split people's lives into before and after," she said.
Like so many other American students, Khan and her classmates watched the TV images of Islamic extremists flying airliners into the World Trade Center.
They watched over and over and over, recalled Khan, who sat stunned and also increasingly aware that she was the only identifiable Muslim at Las Lomas High School because she wore hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf. Khan said she tried not to say a word all day or focus too intently on the TV for fear that her classmates would wonder "whose side you are on?"
"It was a very uncomfortable, scary day," she said.
Sept. 11 marked the first time Khan felt like an outsider, she said. It was also the day that turned an insulated suburban teen into an advocate for Muslims. "It opened my eyes to the reality of things."
She started her high school's first Muslim student association to provide a haven for the handful of other Muslim students on campus and a resource to Las Lomas educators who came to the then 17-year-old with questions about Islam and terrorism.
That led her to a deep and committed involvement in Muslim organizations, such as Generation M, a student-run Muslim activist group. Along the way, she gained courage to stand up to anti-Islam stereotypes, reach out to others and become a leader.
Still, the fear of anti-Muslim backlash lingers for the dark-eyed, 22-year-old. She never stopped wearing a hijab, but rarely wears a black head scarf in public because "it scares people," Khan said. Dressing entirely in traditional Pakistani outfits risks having to deal with stares, comments and people mistaking her for an immigrant for an outsider.
"People look at Muslims differently since 9/11. The suspicion hasn't gone away."
'He has to hear about what goes on in Oakland. It's part of his United States.'
Tiera McGill didn't know anyone in New York when the Twin Towers fell, but she knew about death and losing people she loved.
As an East Oakland teenager, she already had lost two close friends to the city's violent streets. In 1999, her "godbrother" was shot and killed in Oakland. In 2000, his girlfriend suffered the same fate, only this time the couple's daughter witnessed the shooting.
McGill said she sympathized with the victims and their relatives after the 9/11 attacks. She recalls watching the disaster unfold from a housing project in Orange, Texas, a small town near the Louisiana border, where her cousin lives. But as the years go by, it's hard for her to maintain the concern she felt that day.
Mostly, it's because she doubts people are equally concerned about the mounting death toll in her hometown. "It's not like they're worrying about our killings," she said. "We think about
(9/11), but at the same time we've got too much to do out here."
Indeed, the legacy of 9/11 heightened airport security, the war in Iraq and fear of future terrorist attacks has barely brushed McGill, now 18.
The last time she stepped onto an airplane was nearly five years ago, when she flew home to Oakland from Texas. And although she is aware of the casualties in Iraq, she isn't affected by them personally. She has too much to worry about in her own backyard. "Living in Oakland, we lose a lot of people all the time," she said.
In 2003, the list grew by one more name Terrance Mearis, McGill's older brother. Two Oakland police officers shot and killed the unarmed 20-year-old in his friend's house. McGill's family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city. The case later settled.
Oakland's killings have made McGill mourn and made her think. In fact, she said she has a proposal for President Bush. She'd like the government to round up all the young men from Oakland and Richmond who carry guns and want to kill and send them to Iraq.
If only she could sit down with the president, she said recently, she'd make sure he understands what's happening in her city. "He has to hear about what goes on in Oakland," she said. "It's part of his United States."