Mistaken for a terrorist
By Don Fallick
Issue #73 • January/February, 2002
My heart goes out to those Americans and visitors of Arabic heritage who have experienced discrimination and persecution in the wake of Black Tuesday. I know what they are going through. In 1972, I was mistaken for a terrorist in a foreign country.
Footloose and fancy-free after three years in the Army, I had decided to spend the summer hitch-hiking through Europe. A highlight of the trip was to be a week in Germany, visiting Army buddies who had been transferred there. I knew no German, but had been reassured that “everybody speaks English.” It wasn’t true, but that wasn’t the worst of it.
Unknown to me, a band of terrorists called the “Bader-Meinhoff Gang” had been blowing up military bases and hospitals there. They pretended to be American citizens trying to visit friends on U.S. military bases. They carried fake U.S. passports and dressed like student vagabonds. A week before I arrived in Germany, a police artist, working with a survivor of their attacks, put together a composite sketch of the gang’s leader. He looked a lot like me.
Over the next week I was stopped by German police again and again. I was thrown up against walls and had loaded rifles thrust into my stomach while they screamed at me in German. Each time the local police captain eventually concluded that I was just a dumb tourist and he chased me away in disgust. No one ever explained to me what was going on or why I was being harassed.
On one occasion, as I slept in a hotel, I was awakened, late at night, by a huge German police dog that was snarling at my throat. Quickly I found myself spread-eagled against the wall, pinned there by a beast the size of a small pony. His paws were on my chest, and he was snarling directly into my face, snapping and foaming at the mouth. The hotel manager, who was holding him by a leash made from logging chain, explained that the dog was trained to sniff out drugs, and began searching my pack. When he brought out a small package wrapped in brown paper, and the dog started barking furiously, I feared the worst.
Earlier, I had caught a ride with a German fellow, who also picked up a couple of Moroccan Arabs. We had a wonderful time, laughing and joking in French, our only common language. Before we realized it, the youth hostel where we planned to stay was closed, and we had only enough money between us for two to sleep in a hotel. The banks were closed, too, so we pooled our money and drew straws to see who would sleep in the car. Fritz and I won, loaned our sleeping bags to the Moroccans, and checked into the hotel. Those Moroccans! Had they planted drugs on us and then turned us in? All these thoughts flashed through my mind as the manager opened the package.
It turned out to be nothing more than the remains of a ham sandwich. I’d been eating it two days before, when I was offered a ride. I had stuffed it in my pack and forgotten it completely. We gave it to the dog, and the manager stalked off, muttering threats under his breath. Fritz and I had a good laugh about it the next morning. If only all my experiences in Germany had been so innocent.
One event stands out in that week of hell. Someone with a car phone must have reported seeing me in a car. Thinking they had caught the leader of the Bader-Meinhoff Gang, police and soldiers descended en masse, stopping all the traffic on the autobahn and searching every car. I was riding in the back seat when the traffic came to a halt. I thought there must be a terrible accident to stop the traffic going both ways. Then I saw the cops and soldiers searching cars and figured it was a big drug bust. I felt not the slightest bit of apprehension until the soldiers opened my door and yanked me out of the car.
I lay dazedly on my back on the autobahn pavers, surrounded by dozens of heavily armed soldiers. As I looked up past at least a dozen loaded rifle muzzles, I saw an army helicopter circling above me, complete with rockets. Two machine gunners were hanging out of the doors. All were aimed at me. I think it was then that I wet my pants.
The soldiers kept me flat on my back for a long time, grilling me in German. The only German I knew I had learned from late night World War II movies, and I knew better than to use it. Eventually they found a Wehrmacht captain who knew some English. I’m sure he thought I was just playing dumb, but after a while it was obvious even to him that I was not a hardened terrorist. After what seemed half a lifetime, he curtly apologized, telling me “there was a mistake.” But I’d had enough. The next day, leaving Germany, I caught a ride with a German-speaking Canadian who finally told me what was going on. It’s been 30 years, but I’ve never gone back, even though the Bader-Meinhoff Gang have all been captured.
I was very lucky. Several times I could have been killed, but never received a scratch. In my innocence, I thought the soldiers and police very rude. In fact, they were amazingly well-disciplined. But I am living proof that not everyone who looks like a terrorist is one. No matter how angry we are, if we attack the innocent, based solely on their appearance, we become tyrants and terrorists ourselves.