What happened to journalist Ramesh Santanam on 9/11 should not ever happen in America — in a moment of national crisis or on any other day.
Worse things certainly happened on the day of the terrorist attacks and in the weeks and months that followed. Yet, even 20 years later, we need to take a moment as Americans to reflect on how we treat others who look and sound different from ourselves.
A reporter for the Valley News Dispatch in Tarentum, Santanam, 55, had traveled to Tucson, Arizona, on a reporting trip. A native of Sri Lanka, Santanam is the son of Hindu and Christian parents and has an accent.
Like millions of Americans, Santanam learned from television about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center’s North Tower — and then he watched as a second one struck the South Tower and then a third at the Pentagon.
He panicked a little after reading a television scroll about the fourth plane near Pittsburgh, at least until he finally reached his editor and learned it had crashed near Somerset, in Shanksville. (Special events are planned for Sept. 11 at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville.)
Santanam’s 9/11 story should have ended there.
“I still remember,” Santanam told me recently. “I believe it was President Bush coming out and saying, ‘Don’t take this out on people who don’t look like us,’ or something like that. I looked around, and I’m one of those people.”
After working all day, Santanam returned to his hotel room. He ordered a pizza and a Coke, and he watched TV coverage until falling asleep.
He awoke to a thud on his hotel room door, and he heard the visitors announce themselves as Tucson police officers. Santanam opened the door.
The officers said they had received a report about someone suspicious staying in the hotel.
“For a split second, I thought they wanted to talk to me about someone else,” Santanam recalled, “and then it clicked, like, oh, they’re talking about me.”
After they verified his press ID and his driver’s license, Santanam asked them, “What is it that I did today that was suspicious?”
An officer replied, “It was nothing you did; it was something you said.”
Santanam had asked a hotel shuttle driver about places to go shopping that evening.
The next morning, Santanam went to the front desk and asked why employees did not just tell the police he was a journalist doing research.
The clerk replied: “Yeah, well, you know, after what happened, and you look like a terrorist.”
Ramesh Santanam and other journalists will appear at the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University on Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 6 p.m., to reflect on their 9/11 experiences. Registration and more information are available here.
Andrew Conte, the founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you can email him.