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."
So why did the House leadership keep the King amendment out? Bay Area Democrats -- with the exception of Reps. Tom Lantos and Jerry McNerney -- were among the 121 Democrats who voted against the measure; 105 House Dems, and 199 Repubs, voted for it. When the Senate passed a companion measure by a 57-to-39 vote, it lacked the 60 votes to make it to the floor. But the deal set the stage for the Senate to approve the measure on Thursday.
Brendan Daly, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said that leaders feared individuals reporting other passengers based on racial stereotypes, but they worked out a compromise. But it is not clear how the King amendment changed.
It may well be that Democratic leaders realized that they should heed the likes of New York Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, who voted for the Senate bill, rather than side with the likes of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which supported the imams' suit to help the imams, a spokesman told me in April, "clear their names."
Sorry, but suing "John Does" won't clear the imams' names. Instead, the suit bolsters the suspicion that the imams were being deliberately provocative in the hope that airline staff would act -- so that the imams could proclaim themselves victims of discrimination.
Let me be clear. I do not believe that airlines should discriminate against Muslims, the vast majority of whom are good, law-abiding citizens.
Nor do I believe it is wise for security to profile Muslim men. That makes it too easy for potential terrorists to succeed by breaking with the profile. But it also is unwise to pass laws that deter citizens from reporting suspicious behavior by individuals who belong to groups more likely to support terrorism.
After Reid's attempted shoe bombing, Indiana humanities and law professor Fedwa Malti-Douglas wrote in The New York Times that although she had been the target of ethnic profiling, "I believe this scrutiny is a defensible tactic for picking out potential problem passengers." After all, screening procedures "also protect me from terrorism."