We’re All Responsible for Safety in the Skies


One of the parking signs in New York City used to blare, "Don't Even THINK of Parking Here." Another one declared, "No Parking. No Standing. No Stopping. No Kidding."

Parking has always been tough in New York, but airline travel has grown increasingly more difficult for everyone since Sept. 11, 2001.

If going through airport security hasn't been difficult enough, the six imams who were removed from U.S. Airways Flight 300 last November are attempting to make the thought of boarding a plane even more of a hassle.

According to the police report filed from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, U.S. Airways denied service to six men of Middle Eastern appearance who were acting suspiciously prior to and after boarding the plane.

One of the passengers wrote a note to the captain of the plane, describing the passengers' suspicious behavior before boarding. The six loudly prayed together at the gate, and then engaged in a conversation in Arabic in which they invoked the name Osama bin Ladin and cursed the United States for "killing" the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

A passenger then observed the six board the plane, dividing themselves into pairs and sitting in the front, middle and rear of the aircraft. The flight attendants and passengers also reported that the six switched from their assigned seats to a seating pattern that replicated the positions of the hijackers aboard the 9/11 flights.

According to U.S. Airways personnel, most of the imams had requested seat-belt extensions, which they placed on the floor. Three of the six men had one-way tickets and no checked baggage. As the result of their combined actions, they were removed from the flight, questioned by law-enforcement officials and then released.

A ubiquitous sign of our times, particularly in airports, is the request from security officials to report suspicious activity: "If you see something, say something." In the post-9/11 reality, each of us has a stake and a role to play in our own security, as well as that of the larger community.

However, the six imams and the Council on American Islamic Relations would have none of that. On March 4, the six filed a lawsuit with the assistance of CAIR not just against U.S. Airways and the Metropolitan Airports Commission, but also against all of the "John Does" — the passengers who alerted the flight crew to the suspicious behavior of the men.

These passengers are heroic people who have taken official calls to be vigilant seriously. Will other people follow their example, or will they be intimidated by the lawsuit?

Not all Muslims are supporting the lawsuit. The American Islamic Forum for Democracy announced its opposition to it, and has declared its legal support for the John Does.

In a television interview, Zuhdi Jasser, the chairman of AIFD, who also is a U.S. Navy veteran, said: "The front line in the war on terrorism is the airports and the gates, and this is not about prayer. I pray regularly, I've prayed in public with my family, but we didn't choose to do it at the gate. It's the most anxiety-laden area in America right now, and to choose this battle is just wrong for America and it's wrong for Muslims."

He continued: "Why spend our money as Muslims on litigation like this? They should be spending it on fighting terrorism."

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based civil-rights organization, has also joined the side of the John Does. The fund denounced the lawsuit for targeting private citizens, a measure it deemed as "far outside the scope of legitimate civil-rights test cases."

In a letter to CAIR, the Becket Fund's President Kevin Hasson wrote: "[T]his tactic of threatening suit against ordinary citizens is so far beyond the tradition of civil-rights litigation in the United States that we must oppose it to defend the good name of religious liberty itself. In short, we know religious liberty. Religious liberty is a client of ours. And this claim is not about religious liberty."

Yehudit Barsky is director of the Division on Middle East and International Terrorism at the American Jewish Committee.


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