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. (“Katherine Kersten: 'Flying imams' case is settled at our expense’”).
U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery, in a ruling this past July, wrote that the MAC officers involved “were actually guilty of a ‘willful or malicious wrong.’” Kersten writes that the judge, who had the benefit of hindsight, second-guessed officers who had to respond quickly to a highly suspicious and possibly deadly set of circumstances.
The judge used the words “willful or malicious wrong” because that's the statutory language that allows her to justify stripping away the immunity law enforcement officers are afforded in the ordinary exercise of their duties. You can’t have cops wondering every time they write a ticket or chase down a purse-snatcher if they’re going to end up in a civil lawsuit.
Obviosuly there are times when police, acting from genuine malice in abusing their power, should be deprived of immunity and made to be liable for harm they do. I don’t believe for a second this is one of those cases.
I believe that these officers, when faced with the totality of the circumstances that day, (including their awareness of how seemingly innocent passengers got control of four planes on 9/11), believed it was more likely than not that these guys had something dangerous in mind.
I still believe that the actions of the imams on that day were deliberately provocative, and objectively suspicious. But once the judge had dissected every component part of those actions in isolation from every other action, she decided that there was no sign anywhere of anything illegal these poor imams had done. So why all the alarm?
Actually, she didn't ask, why all the alarm? She skipped the question of why the opinions of the investigators, police, MAC officers, FBI, flight crew, and passengers were unanimous that these guys were hinky. Instead, she simply concluded thay they all harbored a malicious hankering to hassle these guys and stop the flight because they didn't like Muslims. She figured, (again, in hindsight), that because no one thing the imams did that day in and of itself was a terrorist act, therefore all of what they did that day, combined, did not justify being asked to leave the plane or create a suspicious pattern. So they asked for seat belt extenders, says the judge. They'd never been used as weapons before.
Neither had boxcutters, your honor, until 9/11.
This is a very frustrating circumstance.
As Robert Spencer wrote last year,
Even if they are completely innocent, abhor terrorism, reject Islamic supremacism, and weren't doing anything but praying on that fateful flight, they should recognize that people will make honest mistakes in trying to prevent terror attacks. But by pursuing this lawsuit, they show that they're unwilling to grant that -- and the result of their suit, whether it is successful or not, will be to make it more difficult to take people off planes even when they are acting suspiciously. The only beneficiaries will be jihad terrorists.
It’s not far-fetched that jihadists planning our harm might send out advance teams to test security systems and reactions. As we wrote two years ago:
“The 9/11 Commission found that the 9/11 hijackers had conducted dry runs in advance. Certainly had they been detained on those dry runs they also would have been found to have not committed any federal crime--yet.”("I'd Like an Aisle Seat")Though none of the objective acts of such testers may be unlawful, our law enforcement footing has to be such that we’re able to stop and take a closer look when something doesn’t seem right. There have been real plots foiled because perceptive people sensed something wasn’t quite right and alerted authorities. By the same token, others have had the same intuition and held back from fear of being guilty of profiling. (“How Profiling Saves Lives, and Fear of ‘Islamophobia’ Gets People Killed”).
Debra Burlingame described one instance of someone ignoring his instinct:
It has been nearly six years since 19 ordinary-looking men boarded four commercial airliners, killed all the pilots and then flew the planes into buildings and the ground.“One of those most haunted by that day is the airline employee who checked in two of the hijackers that morning. He told the 9/11 commission that the pair, traveling on first class, one-way, e-tickets, ‘didn't act right.’ Though he selected them for secondary screening, he didn't request a more thorough search because ‘I was worried about being accused of being “racist” and letting “prejudice” get in the way.’”Airport screener Michael Touhey gave into that fear on 9/11, when he handed boarding passes to Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari.
Nor does this mean arbitrarily arresting Middle Eastern looking people just to be on the safe side. As Touhey said, he'd checked in thousands of Arabs, but these two were wrong. Nor were the six imams deprived of their civil rights in any substantial way. They weren't arrested, they weren't charged, they weren't forbidden to fly, (except by the private carrier, U.S. Airways), and they were not detained beyond the time it took to find out that they weren't especially dangerous.
“’I looked up, and asked them the standard questions. The one guy was looking at me. It sent a chill through me. Something in my stomach churned. And subconsciously, I said to myself, “if they don't look like Arab terrorists, nothing does”. ‘Then I gave myself a mental slap. In over 34 years, I had checked in thousands of Arab travelers and I never thought this before. I said to myself, “that's not nice to think. They are just two Arab businessmen”.’ And with that, Tuohey handed them their boarding passes.” (“The Price of Being Nice”).
But wasn't their being Muslim a factor in their being detained? And aren't we all forbidden to take that into account?
Yes, being Muslim was a factor, and no, we aren't forbidden to take that into account.
Because of the 19 Muslims on 9/11, we can’t board a plane with nail clippers. Because of the Muslim shoe bomber, we have to take our shoes off every time we board a plane. Because of the Muslim terrorists who tried to board planes in the UK with liquid explosives, we can’t board with toothpaste or an ounce of perfume.
The whole transportation security regime since 9/11 is a fairly misguided, often clumsy, always inconvenient, but very direct response to the mortal danger we find ourselves since 9/11 and after from Muslim terrorists. Not, I say, mortal danger from IRA terrorists, pro-lifers, homeschoolers, Hindus, grandmothers, migrant workers, fundamentalist Christians, or soccer moms. Not even, to recall a now obsolete term, mortal danger from nondenominational “terrorism.” Jihad is our enemy. And though jihadis are not always Arab, nor always Middle Eastern, they are always Muslim, because only Islam wages jihad. Judge Montgomery thinks the Consitution requires we exclude that fact from our collective memories.
Who knows how many plots were thwarted because of the actions of those officers three years ago?