It's all too easy to apply hindsight to a potentially perilous situation.
The "flying imams" and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) are declaring victory in their legal war against law-enforcement personnel and safety procedures at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Their "victory" -- aided and abetted by a judge arrogantly dismissive of law-enforcement realities -- is a major setback for transportation safety.
The case made news three years ago when the six imams were removed from a U.S. Airways jet after passengers and airline employees reported that the six were engaging in suspicious behavior, including changing seats into a so-called 9/11 pattern; cursing the United States and its conflict with Saddam Hussein; chanting "Allah, Allah" when boarding was called, and unnecessarily requesting seat-belt extenders that could be used as weapons.
The imams were questioned and released. Subsequently, they sued U.S. Airways, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), the officers involved and even passengers they suspected of reporting their behavior, until an outraged, bipartisan Congress passed a law giving the passengers immunity.
Last week, a settlement was announced in the case. Details remain confidential, and the judge must approve the agreement. But the parties have said publicly that -- though there is no admission of guilt or fault -- money will change hands. MAC's insurance company exercised its right to take charge of the defense and chose to settle, according to MAC spokesman Patrick Hogan.
No wonder. In a ruling this summer, U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery pinned the law-enforcement officials involved to the wall -- one from the FBI and six from MAC -- second-guessing their conduct with the luxury of a Monday-morning quarterback.
When the officers were summoned to Flight 300 on Nov. 20, 2006, they believed that passengers might be in danger, and they had to make quick decisions based on limited information. Montgomery, in contrast, had the opportunity to review hundreds of pages of briefs, depositions and exhibits before concluding -- in hindsight -- that the officers had erred in detaining the imams. After hearing lawyers' arguments, she deliberated for almost three months before penning a 47-page dissertation on what, in her view, the officers should or shouldn't have done that day.
Most important, she -- unlike the officers -- knew with the benefit of hindsight that passengers had not been in danger.
On July 24, 2009, Montgomery issued her ruling. "No reasonably competent officer," she wrote, could have believed he was acting legally by detaining and questioning the imams in a way that, in her view, amounted to an "arrest." The fact that at least 15 officers involved in the incident -- from the MAC, the Federal Air Marshal Service, the FBI and the Secret Service -- had all apparently believed they were acting appropriately and responsibly did not appear to give her pause. The MAC officers, Montgomery ruled, were actually guilty of a "willful or malicious wrong."
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, worries about the impact of a settlement reached under such circumstances.
"Terrorism operates on fear," says Jasser. "Transportation authorities don't know when, where or how terrorists will strike, so they must be vigilant." After this settlement, he adds, the men and women charged with protecting the public will have to contend with a "competing fear" as they make tough decisions: "They may ask, 'If I detain and question someone who is acting suspiciously, will I cost my employer thousands of dollars, or even lose my job?'"
This chilling effect may lead to risky changes in airport security policies and pilot training, Jasser warns. As a result, officials may miss "vital nuances" in behavior that put the rest of us in danger.
Despite a potential increase in safety risks at the airport, is the flying imams' settlement at least a victory for Muslim civil rights, as CAIR has declared? On the contrary, says Jasser -- a Muslim -- it's a victory for the legal strategy of "victimization," which grievance groups have often employed to "shake down" defendants. CAIR and the imams dismiss national security concerns, he says, in order to portray airport security measures as motivated by ethnic and religious bigotry. In the process, they ignore the central role of suspicious behavior and cast themselves as victims of irrational bias.
This obsession with victimization leads CAIR and the imams to ignore Muslims' real interests, Jasser adds.
"Muslims have responsibility for religious reform, aimed at removing the fuel that powers the growth of radical Islam. We will have succeeded when we no longer see arrests for terrorist-related activities -- as we did recently in Denver, New Jersey and Boston," he says.
"The real victory for Muslims will come when the cancer of political Islamist ideology, which feeds terrorism, disappears."
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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