Mar­shals de­cry imams’ charges, fear fliers may not re­port sus­pi­cions

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Au­drey Hud­son

Air mar­shals, pi­lots and se­cu­rity of­fi­cials on Nov. 28 ex­pressed con­cern that air­line pas­sen­gers and crews will be re­luc­tant to re­port sus­pi­cious be­hav­ior aboard for fear of be­ing called “racists,” af­ter sev­eral Mus­lim imams made that charge in a Nov. 27 press con­fer­ence at Ron­ald Rea­gan Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Air­port.

Six imams, or Mus­lim holy men, ac­cused a US Air­ways flight crew of in­ap­pro­pri­ately evict­ing them from a flight two weeks ago in Min­neapo­lis af­ter sev­eral pas­sen­gers said the imams tried to in­tim­i­date them by loudly pray­ing and mov­ing around theair­plane.Theimam­surgedCon­gresstoe­n­act­law­sto­pro­hib­iteth­nic and re­li­gious “pro­fil­ing.”

Fed­eral air mar­shals and oth­ers urged­pas­sen­ger­store­main­vig­i­lant to threats.

“The crew and pas­sen­gers act as ourad­di­tionaleye­sandear­son­ev­ery flight,” said a fed­eral air mar­shal in Las Ve­gas, who asked that his name not be used. “If [crew and passen- gers] are afraid of re­port­ing sus­pi­cious in­di­vid­u­als out of fear of be­ing la­beled a racist or bigot, then ter­ror­ists will cer­tainly use those fears to their ad­van­tage in fu­ture avi­a­tion at­tacks.”

But Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswom­an­fortheCoun­cilonAmer­i­canIs­lam­icRe­la­tions(CAIR),saidMus­lims “have to walk around on eggshells in pub­lic just be­cause we don’t want to be mis­con­strued as sus­pi­cious. You have to strike a bal­ance­be­tween­le­git­i­mate­fear­swhich peo­ple may have, but not al­low pas­sen­gers to have so much dis­cre­tion that they can trig­ger a process that would vi­o­late a trav­eler’s ba­sic civil rights.”

“Be­cause one per­son mis­un­der­stood the ac­tions of other law-abid­ingc­i­t­i­zens,they­w­ere­able­totrig­ger av­ery­lon­gand­daunt­ing­pro­cess­for other trav­el­ers that were pulled off the plane in hand­cuffs and de­tained for many hours be­fore they were cleared.”

The imams say they were re­moved from the Phoenix-bound flight­be­causethey­w­erepray­ingqui­et­lyinthecon­course.They­had­been in Min­nesota for a con­fer­ence spon­sored­bytheNorthAmer­i­canI­mams Fed­er­a­tion.

But other pas­sen­gers told po­lice and avi­a­tion se­cu­rity of­fi­cials a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of the in­ci­dent. They said sus­pi­cious be­hav­ior of the imams led to their evic­tion from the flight. The imams, they said, tested the for­bear­ance of the pas­sen­gers and flight crew in what the air mar­shal called a “[po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness] probe.”

“The po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness needs to be left at the board­ing gate,” the mar­shal said. “In­still­ing po­lit­i­cally cor­rect fears into the minds of air­line pas­sen­gers is noth­ing less than psy­cho­log­i­cal ter­ror­ism.”

The pas­sen­gers and flight crew saidtheimam­sprayed­loudly­be­fore board­ing; switched seat­ing as­sign­mentstoa­con­fig­u­ra­tionused­byter­ror­ists in pre­vi­ous in­ci­dents; asked forseat-bel­tex­ten­sions,which­could be used as weapons; and shouted hos­tile slo­gans about al Qaeda and the war in Iraq.

Fligh­tat­ten­dants­saidthree­ofthe six men, who did not ap­pear to be over­weight, asked for the seat-belt ex­ten­sions, which in­clude heavy metal buckles, and then threw them to the floor un­der their seats.

Robert Ma­cLean, a for­mer fed­eral air mar­shal, ex­pressed the fear that the sit­u­a­tion “will make crews and­pas­sen­gersinthe­fu­turesec­ondguess re­port­ing th­ese events, thus com­pro­mis­ing the air­craft’s se­cu­ri­ty­out­of­fearof­be­inglabeledadog­ma­tist or a bigot, or be­ing sued.”

Flight at­ten­dants said they were con­cerned that the way the imams took seats that were not as­signed to them — two seats in the front row of first class, exit seats in the mid­dle of the­p­lane­andt­woseatsintherear— re­sem­bled the pat­tern used by Septem­ber 11 hi­jack­ers, giv­ing them con­trol of the ex­its.

A Min­neapo­lis po­lice of­fi­cer and a fed­eral air mar­shal who were called to the plane af­ter the imams re­fused to leave the plane for ques­tion­ing said “the seat­ing con­fig­u­ra­tion, the re­quest for seat-belt ex­ten­sions, the prior pray­ing and ut­ter­ances about Al­lah and the United States in the gate area [. . . ] was sus­pi­cious.”

One pilot for a com­pet­ing air­line said the in­ci­dent would have a chill­ing ef­fect on the flight crews.

“The flight crew may be a lit­tle more gun-shy about ap­proach­ing peo­ple,they­may­haveahigh­er­stan­dard for the next few weeks for screen­ing un­usual be­hav­ior. I hope that’snot­the­case,be­causeI­do­think US Air­ways did the proper thing.”

An­drea Rader, spokes­woman for USAir­ways,said­it­sem­ploy­ees“are go­ing to do what is ap­pro­pri­ate” to en­sure that air­planes are safe and will­notbe­dis­suad­ed­byuproarover the in­ci­dent.

“I don’t think peo­ple will be less vig­i­lan­tasare­sultofthis,andI­think that’s ap­pro­pri­ate. There is a bal­ance, and I think we will con­tinue to achieve that. Our crews and peo­ple on the air­planes are go­ing to watch for be­hav­ior that raises con­cerns.”

Manyair­port­sof­fer­pri­vate­rooms for prayer, but CAIR’s Miss Ahmed said trav­el­ers re­quired to ar­rive at air­ports two hours in ad­vance to go through se­cu­rity in­spec­tions are too ex­haustedand­must­pray­atthe­gate.

“It’s con­ve­nient to check in then get to the gate and pray there,” she said.

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