HBO’s “The Night Of” unfolds the life of the protagonist Nasir (Naz) Khan, a Pakistani-American college student living in New York City post-9/11. The mini series explores one crime through various angles. In the opening episode, Naz borrows his father’s taxi to go to a party in the city. A beautiful woman, Andrea, enters his vehicle, and the night is soon filled with sex and drugs. The next morning, Naz wakes up to find Andrea stabbed to death, and he cannot remember what happened. He leaves the scene and is later arrested—the police discover a bloody knife matching the murder weapon inside Naz’s jacket and witnesses identify him. Naz is sent to manhattan Central Booking and then to Rikers Island jail.
Naz, a “good boy” from a middle-class family, is soon immersed in a place filled with rape, beatings, knifings, and drug smuggling. The character is changed by his experiences: he eventually begins to lift weights, shaves his head, gets “SIN” and “BAD” tattooed on his fingers, and partakes in drug smuggling and prison beatings. Even though Naz is eventually released, he is forever changed. The transformation of Naz’s character due to imprisonment elucidates the fault in the criminal justice system, America’s way of “containing” the “dangerous” population. It depicts the ways prison can, in fact, make inhabitants more violent and dangerous than they were before entering the system.
Naz’s experience also demonstrates post-9/11 prejudices. In and out of prison, he receives Islamophobic slurs, and his family also experiences similar struggles. His father loses his cab because of Naz’s case and is treated by previous friends and other community members with hostility. Even after Naz is released, strangers and previous friends stare at Naz intimidatingly, and he is unable to escape Islamophobia.
The show’s exploration of the criminal justice system and Islamophobia relates to the nuclear gaze found in both post Cold War and post 9/11 culture. The gaze resulted from constant fear of a nuclear holocaust after the Cold War or, in this case, another terrorist attack after 9/11. Many Americans feared anyone who deviated from the norm, thus creating a distinction between the “Other” and “Same” and “dangerous” and “non-dangerous” activity. Naz is classified as the “Other” because he is Pakistani and is thus frequently considered “dangerous.” In order to control increased danger, containment is used to place the “Other” in separate groups. In this case, the “Other” is placed in a prison, in an effort to isolate “dangerous” people from a “safe” society. However, containment of an already stereotyped individual perpetuates the stereotype of the race, exemplified by the fact that Naz leaves prison more violent and aggressive than before. When races are contained in high profile ways, the result is increased racism and paranoia.