"Flying Imams" and Reichstags

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May 9, 2009

6 min read

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"If you see something, say something." Prudent action or racist fear-mongering?

It used to be that the only people I knew who were concerned about the
behavior of fellow mass-transit passengers were Israelis. But that was
before Sept. 11, the airline "shoe bomber," the Madrid railway attacks
and the 2005 suicide bombings in the London subway.

Like it or not, the mantra "if you see something, say something" is
simply part of the reality of life in the age of the war on Islamist
terror. Indeed, it was exactly this sort of routine vigilance on the
part of a young clerk at a Circuit City electronics outlet store this
spring that led to the uncovering of a local Islamist plot to murder
U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J.

But while that young man was justly celebrated for his good deed,
others with equally reasonable suspicions of foul play can expect
something quite different: a lawsuit.

Justified Suspicions

Passengers on a U.S. Airways flight in Minneapolis last November
noticed six Islamic clerics behaving in a suspicious manner. They were
not merely by praying loudly before boarding, but didn't sit in their
assigned seats and spread out around the airplane and asked for
unneeded seatbelt extenders.

Frightened by the possibility of a hijacking, the passengers reported
this behavior to authorities. The six Muslims, now known as the "flying
imams," were questioned and then exonerated. But it didn't end there.

Rather than express understanding of the situation, with the help of
the Council of American Islamic Relations the imams accused everyone
involved in the incident of anti-Muslim prejudice, and are suing the
passengers they frightened.

The goal of the lawsuit is to send a message to anyone who associates Muslims with terror that they should think twice before saying anything.

The goal of the lawsuit is not just revenge for their experience, but
to send a message to anyone who associates Muslims with terror -- no
matter how reasonable their suspicions might be -- that they should
think twice before saying anything.

The possibility of such lawsuits, not to mention the certainty that
CAIR will label them as "racists," will deter those who report
questionable activity to the authorities, and thus potentially make it
easier for terrorists to operate in the open.

Some members of Congress have responded to this problem, and are
seeking to add to a Homeland Security bill an amendment that would give
immunity to anyone who reported in good faith suspicious activity on
mass transit. Though the provision sponsored by Rep. Peter King
(R-N.Y.) was passed in both Houses of Congress, it may yet be discarded
when competing House and Senate bills are reconciled in conference.

If that happens, it will be because some of our politicians are more
interested in their war on the administration than in giving honest
citizens protection against frivolous lawsuits by the Islamist
race-baiters at CAIR, whose roots as a support group for Hamas betray
their own extremist agenda.

But at the heart of this controversy isn't just partisanship, or a
desire to protect innocent Muslims from humiliation. What this is about
is the legitimacy of the war on Islamist terror itself.

Insight into this dilemma was provided, ironically enough by the first
professed Muslim to serve in Congress: freshman Rep. Keith Ellison
(D-Minn.).

Ellison caused a regrettable kerfuffle when some pundits wrongly
expressed opposition to his decision to take his oath of office last
January by swearing on the Koran. His defenders sought to downplay any
notion that this former supporter of Louis Farrakhan was anything but
an ardent defender of civil liberties.

But in a July 8 speech, Ellison revealed himself to be someone who
looks at the post-9/11 world from a CAIR-like frame of reference. In
it, he compared America's response to that attack to the way the Nazis
exploited the 1933 burning of the Reichstag in Berlin.

In Ellison's vision, the belated efforts by Americans to wake up to the reality of the Islamist threat was a nightmare based on fraud and fear-mongering Nazi-look-alikes.

The statement was not just a classic example of Michael Moore-style,
over-the-top hatred for Bush, but revealed a sensibility that saw the
entire effort to fight Al Qaeda and render future terror attacks less
likely as inherently illegitimate. In Ellison's vision, the belated
efforts by Americans to wake up to the reality of the Islamist threat
was a nightmare based on fraud and fear-mongering Nazi-look-alikes, not
a nation asserting its right to defend itself against terror.

That such sentiments exist in the fever swamps of both the far right
and left in this country is no secret. That they are being put about by
members of Congress -- especially the man embraced by American Muslims
as their role model and spokesman -- is telling.

The speech also generated one of those controversies that illustrate
how distorted both political discourse and interfaith communal
relations have become.

In response to his use of an inappropriate Nazi analogy, the
Anti-Defamation League first reached out to Ellison. Seeking to make
friends rather than merely to shoot from the hip, the ADL met with the
congressman to try and coax back in off the ledge. But though the
Minnesotan now says he agrees with ADL's position, he was slow to
backtrack, and after the affair dragged on for weeks, the group's
leader, Abe Foxman, finally issued a statement taking him to task.

Ellison's reaction was to play the victim and claim he was "blindsided"
by Foxman's reproof since he eventually intended to say something
though he won't make one now. Thus, rather than the focus being on
Ellison's wild charges, Foxman wound up in the dock.

Due to Ellison's clever spin, the reaction to his speech was treated as
the offense, not his appropriation of Holocaust imagery to smear the
anti-terror campaign. The issue became Foxman's supposed eagerness to
garner publicity and to shrei gevalt, not Ellison's embrace of
extremist rhetoric.

But Foxman had been dead right about Ellison.

While America Slept

Prior to 9/11, America was asleep to the threat from Islamist
terrorists, and their apologists and rationalizers. After that national
trauma, more of us began to think about the danger and take action.

The real danger is the return to the pre-9/11 apathetic mindset that Ellison and
his allies at CAIR are encouraging.

It is true that the Homeland Security Department created to coordinate
our defense has been a disappointing boondoggle. And a fear of
accusations of racism from CAIR has led to a refusal to use profiling
techniques that has rendered airline-security measures a joke, as old
ladies can be strip-searched while those who are more likely to be
dangerous are left alone. But though the possibility of another
atrocity exists, there has been no repeat of 9/11.

While the administration has plenty of mistakes to answer for, the real
danger is the return to the pre-9/11 apathetic mindset that Ellison and
his allies at CAIR are encouraging.

If it has gotten to the point where people like the U.S. Air passengers
and Abe Foxman are seen as the problem -- and not the
jihad-rationalizers at CAIR or a congressman who thinks Republicans are
Nazis -- then we are back to square one in the war on terror.

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