Tuesday, July 24, 2007

YOU are "John Doe"

Congress must protect those who sense peril on public transportation

Anyone who has been in an American airport over the last six years is likely to have seen exhortations to report suspicious activity. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has festooned its buses and subway cars with the slogan "See something, say something." But in the wake of machinations by the House Homeland Security Committee and an outrageous Senate floor vote last week, that may have to be changed to "See something, say nothing – or get sued."

The target of the congressional beatdown on July 18 was a measure to protect airline passengers and workers who report suspicious behavior from lawsuits. After the 9/11 atrocity one might think such a suit would be beyond the pale – but one is even now in progress in a federal court in Minnesota.

It was filed by six imams – Muslim clerics – who were boarding a Nov. 20 flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix on Tempe-based US Airways after attending a conference. When several passengers became alarmed at the clerics’ behavior at the gate and in the airliner, they alerted flight crew members, who in turn called police. The imams were removed from the aircraft and questioned. They were released without charges, but when they tried to get another flight from the airline the next day their fares were refunded and they were refused tickets.

Such treatment seems pretty brusque – until you read the police reports of the actions that precipitated it. At the gate before boarding, a witness told police, the clerics made a very loud show of praying, chanted "Allah, Allah, Allah," and cursed the U.S. involvement in Iraq. Another witness, a frequent traveler to the Middle East, described this in a statement to police as "atypical in my experience of Muslims." After they had boarded, the clerics switched seats, taking up positions that gave them control of all exits from the aircraft – forward, aft and amidships. Four of them requested and received seat-belt extensions, though the flight attendants that issued them did not consider the men to be particularly heavy. Nor did the clerics use the extensions, but rather placed them at their feet.

According to the police report, airport officers and a federal air marshal who had boarded the plane to investigate decided that all of these actions were indeed suspicious, and ordered the clerics to deplane. Once back in the terminal, they were questioned by FBI and Secret Service agents and the airport’s TSA security director. Passenger witnesses gave written statements before the flight took off, the frequent Middle East traveler noting that the cleric with whom she had talked "indicated that it was necessary to go to whatever measures necessary to obey all that’s set out in the Koran."

Now imagine yourself on this flight – witnessing these Middle Eastern males loudly chanting the name of their deity, speaking angrily of our country, shuffling seats and obtaining seat-belt extensions that would serve very nicely as either a field-expedient mace or a garotte. Are you going to meekly accept the possibility of getting incinerated in a replay of the 9/11 horror, or are you, having seen something, going to say something?

The passengers who did the latter were exercising their civic duty – to say nothing of their right of self-preservation. In light of the very real menace of jihad terrorism it was only plain common sense to warn the flight crew of a group of ostentatiously Muslim males acting ominously. As passenger Pauline Klemmer told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "If we had been afraid of them because of their race, or them loudly praying prior to them getting on the plane, we would not have gotten on the plane, and we did. They chose to make an obvious big scene." Passenger Rita Snelson agreed that "they were definitely trying to raise suspicion. ... I told the airline afterward, ‘Thank you for watching over us.’"

But the passengers’ warnings and the crew’s and police actions touched off howls of protest from the imams and Muslim activists. One of the clerics, Omar Shahin, bewailed the "humilated way" he and his fellow clerics were escorted off the plane and accused the apprehensive passengers of "obvious discrimination." Another, Marwan Sadeddin, demanded, "Just tell me one activity or one deed we did that looks weird." Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation director Mahdi Bray decried the clerics’ removal as "a gross example of blatant Islamophobia." Demonstrations were staged at Reagan Washington International Airport on Nov. 27 and at US Airways’ downtown Tempe headquarters on Dec. 1.

And on March 12, the six imams filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Minneapolis, alleging that several defendants "maliciously, recklessly and without regard to their privacy and integrity, defamed and made false reports against Plaintiffs to justify their illegal action" and seeking "declaratory relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and injunctive relief to prevent future unlawful discrimination." That US Airways, its parent corporation and the Twin Cities Metropolitan Airport Commission would be targeted was predictable enough – all those deep pockets to dip into – but the clerics’ New York attorney Omar Mohammedi is after other game as well: to wit, several "John Does" his complaint names as "Defendant Flight Attendants and Desk Agents" and "passengers ... who contacted U.S. Airways to report the alleged ‘suspicious’ behavior."

Now trying to shake down corporate and government entities for huge damages or a fat out-of-court settlement is standard operating procedure for activist attorneys like Mohammedi (who is president of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations). The imams and their lawyer may also, as Star-Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten and JihadWatch.org director Robert Spencer have suggested, be trying to build political pressure for an "anti-profiling" bill put forth by senior Democrats in Congress. But threatening ordinary airline passengers and workers with the club of court-imposed penury is something else again. It can have no intent or effect other than sheer intimidation.

See something? If it involves a Middle Eastern or Muslim male, say nothing – or face financial ruin.

This has put the imams and their backers in a notably bad odor. News of their bullying lawsuit quickly spread throughout the blogosphere, and even several pillars of the usually quiescent mainstream media – the Arizona Republic, on March 30, among them – were moved to editorialize against it. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm for plaintiffs (including Muslims) in religious discrimination cases, blasted the imams’ suit and offered to defend the "John Does" without charge. The Becket Fund also pledged legal action to keep the passengers’ and workers’ identities confidential. (The imams have their own concerns about confidentiality, as witness their attorney’s attempt to bar media access to the trial and have it held in closed session. On June 27, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Montgomery brusquely refused Mohammedi’s "extraordinary" requests.)

On March 27, the U.S. House passed, by a 304-121 vote, an amendment to the Homeland Security funding bill to protect "John Does" from litigation such as Mohammedi’s. Pointedly, it was made retroactive to Nov. 20 – the day the imams’ behavior got them yanked off their flight to Phoenix. The legislation received support from many quarters, including law enforcement unions. In a letter to Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., co-author of the protection bill, Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Grand Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, stressed that it is "important for citizens to feel that they can report suspicious activity ... Such lawsuits are clearly being used to intimidate witnesses."

But on July 18, the provision was stripped from the Homeland Security bill by the House Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. That evening, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., tried to get it attached it to an education bill as an amendment. As it was unrelated to that bill, it needed a 60-vote supermajority to pass – and this, to the disgrace of the U.S. Senate, it failed to achieve.

But the "John Doe" protection bill’s supporters are still trying to get it enacted – and they need help from citizens who think their right to reach their destinations in one uncharred piece trumps specious concerns about "profiling." If that category includes you, call Congress now, and tell your representatives loud and clear that if you see something, you want to be able to say something – without fear of agenda-driven retribution.

Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: (202) 225-4965
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: (202) 224-3542
Sen. Jon Kyl (202) 224-4521
Sen. John McCain (202) 224-2235
Dist. 1. Rep. Rick Renzi (202) 225-2315
Dist. 2. Rep. Trent Franks (202) 225-4576
Dist. 3. Rep. John Shadegg (202) 225-3361
Dist. 4. Rep. Ed Pastor (202) 225-4065
Dist. 5. Rep. Harry Mitchell (202) 225-2190
Dist. 6. Rep. Jeff Flake (202) 225-2635
Dist. 7. Rep. Raul Grijalva (202) 225-2435
Dist. 8. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: (202) 225-2542

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