Hippocratic Oafs

The story is over. It’s yesterday’s headline.

Everyone involved has begun to recede back into normal life insofar as they had normal lives. But before it becomes just another strange memory of 2002, a worthy wave goodbye.

Eunice Stone of Georgia is reportedly recovering from the chest pains that led her to check herself into a local hospital. The diagnosis was stress. The three young Muslim men with whom she had her now-famous encounter have reportedly announced they will not sue her, which is certainly gracious of them.

I wasn’t there, but I listened to everyone who spoke of it and watched the story closely. And it’s not hard to imagine what probably happened that day at Shoney’s.

Three young Mulsim men walk into the middle-class chain restaurant in a Georgia town. They are dressed in what customer Eunice Stone apparently understood to be Mideastern dress. As for Sikh, Saudi, whatever, she probably didn’t know. She probably knew as much about Muslim culture as the three young Muslim men knew about American Indian culture. Which is to say: probably nothing.

So they’re all in a small southern town, at a local chain restaurant, and when the three young Muslim males walk in, the locals—Southerners, Americans, neighbors—look at them. Maybe hard. Maybe up and down. Who are those guys?

And here we might ask: Who are the Southerners? They are likely, being Southerners, Americans who take a rather protective and even loving interest in their country. They are painfully aware that America had, just one year before, been brutally attacked by groups of people who were young Muslim males. They left 3,000 dead—innocent people, civilians, young people just starting out. It grieved a great country. It grieved them.

The Southerners know, for they keep a close eye on the news, that there are now in our country cells of young Muslim males loyal not to the United States but to the grievances and leadership of terror masters. They mean us ill. A bunch of men allegedly meeting this description were arrested last week in Buffalo, N.Y. More are said to be lying low in Michigan, Florida, New Jersey and other states. They move among us with confidence, taking advantage of the freedoms we guarantee, and taking advantage too of our cultural reluctance to jump to conclusions based on a person’s look or sex or ethnicity.

*   *   *

So the Southerners are eyeballing the young Muslim males. Maybe these guys are bad guys. They allow themselves to think this in part because one of the things Americans regret most since Sept. 11 2001 is their lack of suspicion. We’re all very live-and-let-live. Before Sept. 11, young Muslim males could tell someone in passing that soon those towers in New York will go boom. And fearing to offend, fearing to hurt the feelings of another person, we’d let it pass. We’d mind our business, give them the benefit of the doubt.

And now we wish we’d been less friendly, less trusting, less lazy or frightened. We wish we’d been skeptical. Hell, we’re the only nation on earth that is now nostalgic for paranoia.

But it’s the anniversary of Sept. 11, and now we’re trying to be alert, to look out for things.

So the Southerners eyeball the young Muslim males, and the young Muslim males feel the vibe.

And they don’t like it. They resent it.

Here they had two clear choices: Try to understand the emotions of the people around them—people who’ve been bruised, who’ve seen their country take a roundhouse right from history—and choose to be polite and friendly. The young Muslim males could smile and nod, for instance. This probably would have gone far in making progress between peoples, for one thing we’ve all read about the terrorists of Sept. 11 is that they never bothered to be nice. They tended to treat the Americans with whom they interacted with Sullen Dead Face—the inexpressive look young men put on so it will be hard for you to read them. Because they don’t want to be read. Because they want to convey an air of some menace.

They could have introduced themselves to the waitress, mentioned they’re on their way to medical school. They could have been quiet, minded their business, chatted softly.

But they didn’t bother to be nice. They wanted things on their terms.

So they took option two.

They sensed the questioning within the gazes, and they thought it would be amusing to show these stupid and uneducated Southern people, these dumb crackers, these yokels, who was boss. You think we’re bad guys? We’ll show you bad guys.

And so one of them or a few of them said the things Eunice Stone says she overheard. Talk about explosions, references to Sept. 11, talk about how Sept. 13 will be even bigger.

And Ms. Stone, alarmed, put herself on the line. She called the police and told them what she’d heard. She was interviewed by them repeatedly and exhaustively. She did everything she could to see that the young Muslim males were stopped.

The young Muslim males took off in their cars, driving south. They were stopped in Florida, where police closed a highway for an entire day as robots searched their car. The young Muslim men, the police said, were not entirely cooperative. They had attitude. Certainly in their interviews after they were released, after nothing was found in their cars, they displayed plenty of attitude. They were an unsympathetic bunch, in both ways. They showed scant sympathy for those they’d inconvenienced and alarmed, and they also inspired no sympathy for their plight. Later, a sister of one of the young men went on CNN to declare that this was the South, and you know how the South is: “It has a reputation of racism.”

I thought, as I watched this: It has a reputation for patriotism, too. It’s why Southern men and women join the armed forces in such high numbers, and why, if the sister were ever attacked by a terrorist, they’d risk their lives to save her sorry, sanctimonious little . . . Well, as I watched I got a little mad.

The South’s reputation for patriotism may be why Eunice Stone put herself on the line, and wound up overwhelmed by insults and unwanted fame, in the hospital, and ultimately being patronized—We won’t sue you—by the three young Muslim males.

*   *   *

But they were right about one thing, and it’s a big thing. This really does appear to have been a story about bigotry.

There was someone who was prejudiced, who made assumptions based on newspaper reports and urban legends; there was someone who didn’t like “the other” and assumed bad things about them; there was someone who was insensitive, lacking in compassion and aggressive.

And it wasn’t Eunice Stone. It was the three young Muslim males, the young would-be doctors, the college-educated men, who thought they’d have some fun with their social, intellectual and moral inferiors.

*   *   *

And now it’s over. The hospital they said they were on their way to visit for training told them to go elsewhere. Good hospital. Florida’s Gov. Jeb Bush privately called Ms. Stone and told her he thought she’d done the right thing. Good governor. The media, which covered the story wall to wall, did not indulge in a reflexive “poor minority person is abused by bullying whites” narrative. They questioned the men closely, and sometimes sharply. And Ms. Stone is said to be recuperating at home. May she recover fully, quickly and with the knowledge that the vast majority of Americans understand what she did and why, and appreciate it.

As for the three Muslim males, they plan to continue their studies. Perhaps they could take a course in bias reduction. It would be nice if they were assigned a paper that answers the question: “Why might a people who had just been attacked by young Muslim males feel a heightened sensitivity and awareness in the presence of young Muslim males? Discuss.”

Perhaps they could learn from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, whose advice to young doctors was timeless and is applicable here: “First, do no harm.”