Alioune Niass, the Sengalese Muslim vendor who first spotted the now infamous smoking SUV in Times Square and alerted police, is no hero.
If it were not for the Times of London, we would not even know of his pivotal role in the story. No mainstream American newspaper bothered to mention or profile Niass, who peddles framed photographs of celebs and the Manhattan skyline. None of the big television stations interviewed him.
As far as the readers of the New York Times are concerned—not to mention the New York Post and the Daily News—Niass doesn’t exist. Nor does he exist for President Obama, who telephoned Lance Orton and Duane Jackson, two fellow vendors, to thank them for their alertness in reporting the SUV. The New York Mets even feted Jackson and Orton as heroes at a game with the San Francisco Giants.
And Niass? Well, no presidential phone calls, no encomiums, no articles (though his name did finally surface briefly at a New York Times blog several days after the incident), no free Mets tickets. Yet as the London Times reported, it was Niass who first saw the clouds of smoke seeping from the SUV on that Saturday night.
He hadn’t seen the car drive up, because he was attending to customers—and, for a vendor in Times Square, Saturday nights are not to be taken lightly. Niass was alarmed, however, when he saw that smoke. “I thought I should call 911,” he told the Times, “but my English is not very good and I had no credit left on my phone, so I walked over to Lance, who has the T-shirt stall next to mine, and told him. He said we shouldn’t call 911. Immediately he alerted a police officer nearby.” Then the cop called 911.
So Lance got the press, and he and Jackson, who also reported the SUV, have been celebrated as “heroes.” As the Times interview with Niass has made the Internet rounds, there have been calls for the recognition of his “heroism,” too.
These three men all acted admirably. The two other vendors did what any citizen ought to do on spotting a smoldering car illegally parked on a busy street. But heroes? In the case of Niass, characterizing him as a hero may in a sense diminish the significance of his act.
A vendor in New York since 9/11, he saw something amiss and reported it, leading him into contact with the police. That a Muslim immigrant would not think twice about this simple civic act speaks volumes about the power of American society and the actual day-to-day lives and conduct of Muslims in this nation, particularly immigrant Muslims.
This was a reasonably routine act for Orton and Jackson, but for Niass it required special courage, and the fact that he acted anyway only underscores what should be an obvious fact about Muslims in post-9/11 America: they represent a socially responsible and engaged community like any other.