I Choose Vigilance

Upon sight, I was terrified.

masked man in camouflage on subway
masked man

It had only been moments earlier that I was engrossed in a game on my phone and only mildly aware of the other passengers that had stepped on and off the subway around me.  There are so many stops along my route that I just get used to the movement of the train. But on this Saturday afternoon, I happened to glance up and instantly began to shake. He was in full camouflage garb and under his raised hood was a black mask. All of his features were undecipherable

camouflage with a mask
masked man in camouflage on the subway

but, it was not just what he was wearing. His stance and behaviour caused me alarm. Although he was not a particularly big man, he stood with his back against one door while admiring himself in the reflection of the adjacent entranceway.  He shifted from one foot to the other, gyrating while tugging at the wrists of his black gloves. Every so often he would slip a hand into his jacket and begin the ritual all over. There is no other way to describe his behaviour other than he appeared to be preparing to do something. He was amped up.

I froze, not knowing what to do. I slowly took in my surroundings and realized no one else noticed him and I considered that I been gripped by paranoia. Then, I looked at the map above the door nearest me to assess how long until the next stop.  We were half way between the two stations which were the furthest apart. My ears began to burn and my eyes began to sting; all signs that I was not okay.  This is my visceral response to the fear, helplessness, and doubt this stranger had provoked just by standing twenty feet from me.  The train was slowing. We were nowhere close to the next stations and my heart began to thunder in my chest.

suspicious on public transit choose vigilance
choose vigilance

The thought that perhaps security had spotted this man on their cameras and had suspended the train as a way to organize a plan at the next platform not only calmed me a little, it twisted my fear into vigilance. It was still possible that I was being paranoid. Then, once the train made its complete irregular stop the man turned and started walking towards me.  I had considered taking a video but my shaking hands and his proximity botched that idea. What I saw next changed everything.

The panic and fear that prickled at my spine had been replaced with a burn.  There was no camouflage on the back of his jacket. Except for his sleeves, it was all beige. Markings that I

symbol on the back of a camouflage jacket
W or guns?

could not identify, with my limited knowledge of anything middle eastern were scrawled in black across his shoulders. What I was seeing appeared to be Islamic lettering with two symbols that resembled hands either using the thumb and fourth finger to make a broken ‘W’ or guns. Regardless what it was, it pissed me off.

He stopped at another doorway to watch himself rock back and forth while pulling at the cuffs of his gloves and touching inside his jacket. This time he threw tight little air punches. It was as if he were antagonizing us; begging for everyone to notice and daring someone to say or do something.

Where the hell were the drunken sports fans who often take this very train?  Three burly guys with the bravado that came with being in an excited energized group was exactly what we needed right then.  No luck.  Most of us were single passengers or paired up in couples or young shoppers. Some had noticed our trouble maker and were slowly processing what he was and what could be going on and decided to ignore it.  The train jolted forward again and the man bolted back to his original spot two doors ahead of me. At this point, not only was I watching him, I was trying to figure out if he was alone and if anyone else around me was on alert. A few puzzled expressions looked his way but seemed disinterested.  The voice came over the speaker system announcing the next stop and he turned and stalked by me before returning to his secondary position

suspicious masked man on subway
fear on the subway

again.  As the train turned slightly to the right, I lost sight of him and purposefully moved to the other side of my car.  We turned again, this time to the left and I returned to my seat, all the while never taking my eyes off the man. Finally my actions and, I can only assume, intense staring caught the attention of other passengers who began to take notice of the man in full combat gear and mask taunting his own reflection.

The gentleman nearest me looked my way and said shakily, “Is that..?”

“Fucking suspicious?! Hell yes.”


I said without looking at him because at the same time the man started toward the front of the train.  I got up and bolted towards him refusing to let him out of my sight.  As people stood for their nearing stop, he was more difficult to track. The train slowed and l maneuvered my way through the crowd. When I caught him in my sights again he was right at the very end of the train. He was nearing the conductor’s booth. I did not know what to do. The train stopped and the man turned and stood strangely close to the last set of doors.  When they opened, he swayed back and forth, as if playing with the decision to get off.  I stepped onto the platform but was prepared to jump back on. The doors closed and the man stayed on board.  The subway began to move and accelerate past me.  I ran to the stairway while looking for a train number. In doing so I looked right into the frightened face of the gentleman who had been sitting near me. I will never forget that face and expression of fearful confusion.

fear on public transit
fear on public transit

Now, what do I do?  Do I get on the next train?  Was this worth being late for work? If I am over reacting and being paranoid, how do I explain that?  How can I get on the next train with my suspicions? What if I am right?  What good will I be to anyone if something happens?  I will just be stuck on the next train, stuck underground. With that, I ran up the stairs and found the first uniform I could.  It turned out to be a bus driver to whom I reported what I saw.

The sound of my own voice trembling was enough to convince myself that the threat was real.  Even if it was not a terrorist attack in the making, what kind of ass-hole gets on a train to provoke terror?  I was afraid for me, for my children and every single person on that train. I was angry at the way he made me feel in my own community and how defenseless I felt.  I think that I am tough but doubted that I was tough enough to take him down. But what if I were wrong?  That was the question that stirred the most inner commotion.

The bus driver did not waste any time. He ran to the subway booth operator and after they exchanged words both sprinted in opposite directions.  I stood there all alone, not knowing what to do.

Finally, I reasoned that I had done all that I could and climbed into a cab once I reached street level.  Traffic was terrible and the cab driver looked at me strangely when I asked him to avoid routes that followed the subway. In all fairness, after everything, what sense did it make for me to remain within proximity of that train?  It was a few minutes after my start time once I reached work. At first, my colleagues laughed at me for allowing my imagination to get the better of me. But after a few minutes of discussion, they all agreed that there is something just not right about wearing a mask and behaving so strangely on public transit. The agreement being; no organized terrorist group would be that obvious. I agreed but a wannabe terrorist could be just as dangerous. What if he was looking to be recruited and this was his act of loyalty? What if he were just a punk trying to get a reaction? Well, he succeeded. I was afraid and then I was angry. Hell, I am still angry.  The general agreement was that no one would have blamed a soccer mom for getting up and kneeing a punk on the train who was clearly an idiot and potentially dangerous.

I spend the next few hours waiting for something on the news and was grateful that there wasn’t anything. Then I spend the next two week scouring the internet looking for the lettering I saw and a general image of what he looked like. Two weeks later there was another attack this time in Brussels.  My experience was terrifying and so insignificant in comparison to what all of those people felt and continue to feel.  The images of people fleeing and victims struck down are devastating and heart wrenching. I refuse to let my fear outweigh my anger but I will continue to be pissed off and vigilant.

And as soon as I can find an image that best depicts what I saw, what he was wearing and what was on the back of his jacket I will post it. This person could have very well been a woman, so pardon the constant use of ‘he’.

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