Imagine you're waiting to board a plane, and you see fellow travelers acting strangely and muttering words that you don't understand. Maybe they're Muslim, maybe they're not. You're afraid that they are up to no good. What do you do?
Nothing. If you report the behavior, you might get sued. Or so Americans had reason to believe after House Democratic leaders omitted from a homeland security bill a measure by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. -- that passed by a 304-to-121 vote in a different bill -- to grant immunity from civil liability to people who report potential threats to or acts of terrorism against transportation systems or passengers.
Until late last week, that is, when King announced a deal with Democratic leaders to put his amendment into the homeland security bill, which later was approved by both houses.
King wrote the measure because of a November 2006 incident at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport -- known as the "flying imam" story. Passengers and crewmembers on a flight bound for Phoenix were concerned after they saw imams praying by the gate, moving around the plane speaking Arabic after boarding and requesting seat-belt extensions that observers feared could be used as weapons. U.S. Airways kicked the six imams off the plane.
In March, the imams filed a lawsuit against U.S. Airways and the airport. The lawsuit also targeted unnamed "John Doe" passengers who "may have made false reports against plaintiffs solely with the intent to discriminate against them on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity and national origin." That's ridiculous. Crew and passengers were concerned about the imams because of their reported behavior.
King wrote the immunity amendment to prevent the chilling effect that a lawsuit might have on passengers who see suspicious behavior, but fear losing their homes -- or being stuck with huge legal bills -- if they report it. After all, citizen involvement could be key in preventing another 9-11 attack.
Remember the passengers who came to the aid of an American Airlines flight attendant who asked for help in subduing Richard Reid, who had been trying to ignite his explosive-laden sneakers? At the time, FBI Special Agent Charles Prouty told reporters: "The willingness of the flight attendants and passengers to get involved with this incident helped avert a potentially dangerous situation. This points to the importance of every citizen staying involved and alert to ensure public safety."