There's lesson in Florida's freaky friday

Posted: Sep 18, 2002 12:00 AM
Even for a Friday the 13th, it was a freaky Friday. It went from feeding frenzy to false alarm to self-flagellation to forgetfulness in a few hours (I promise: no more alliteration). The story actually begins Thursday, Sept. 12., with Eunice Stone, a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman having breakfast with her son at a Shoney's restaurant in Georgia. Stone, who is, depending on whom you believe, a hero, a bigot or a fool, says she overheard three Muslim men plot a terrorist attack on Miami. She wrote down their license plates and phoned in the details to the authorities after the men left the diner. Then, on Friday, the men were stopped on the "Alligator Alley," a Florida highway officially known as I-75. For much of the day, the cable news networks replaced their normal coverage with incessant aerial shots of the closed-off traffic artery as authorities searched the men and their vehicles. By the end of the day, the lawmen declared the whole thing a false alarm, and the TV networks skulked off sheepishly, more than a little embarrassed by their feeding frenzy. The polite interpretation of all this is that nobody did anything wrong. Stone simply misheard the young men. Perhaps they'd had a long conversation about Sept. 11 and how tourism had bombed in Miami as a result, and she heard something about a terrorism bombing in Miami. Personally, I think Stone, a nurse with a good reputation, is telling the truth as she sees it and the young men are lying to cover up a stupid prank. But I confess that I'm basing my conclusion on subjective criteria, primarily my own common sense, which says that women eating breakfast with their sons do not falsely accuse people of being terrorists for no apparent reason whatsoever. It's understandable that everyone wants to forget the whole day ever happened, even the cops who did everything by the book. If Stone told the truth, she's still probably a little embarrassed for being snookered and causing such a fuss. And if she lied, she's probably doubly eager to move on. And, similarly, if the medical students are lying about what would have been a criminally stupid prank, they certainly don't need any more attention. And, oh yeah, there's one more group that's decided to more or less say fuhgetaboutit: the Muslim activists who at first screamed bloody murder. As the terrorism plot story was unraveling, representatives of the Muslim-American community seized the opportunity to denounce the whole thing as an example of outright bigotry and racism. "We believe that the woman is lying because of racist or prejudice background," exclaimed a family spokesman and president of the United Muslim Americans Association. Altaf Ali, executive director of the Florida Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, told the Chicago Tribune: "We hope this incident was not instigated by anti-Islamic rhetoric. A lot of that is being portrayed by public officials and religious leaders across the country. Individuals are listening to those words and turning them into racist actions." The families insisted to a sympathetic and no doubt guilty-feeling press that this was an outrageous case of anti-Muslim profiling by American citizens. But then, very quickly, the Islamic community quieted down, and the press backed off what was promising to be a juicy chance for some self-flagellation and even a little America-bashing. That's because by the end of the day on Friday, word had gotten out that a real live al-Qaida cell had been uncovered in western New York, comprised entirely of U.S. citizens of Arab descent. Even better, it turned out that the people who helped nail the al-Qaida members were fellow Muslims in the same community. That's all it took to muffle the clean story lines of bigoted whites and aggrieved minorities, and rightly so. But instead of using Sept. 13 as a "teaching moment," we seem to have collectively decided to write off the whole day as if it never happened. And that's a shame, because there are some useful lessons to be learned. First we learned, once again, that Muslim-Americans will be disproportionately inconvenienced by the war on terrorism. This understandably annoys Muslims and civil libertarians who believe the Constitution forbids disparate inconvenience. But the fact is, the terrorists we're fighting are all Muslims. If al-Qaida were an entirely Pennsylvania Dutch operation, Amish people would certainly bear a disproportionate burden in the war on terror. But we can't pretend that this is the case. But on the flipside, Muslim-Americans have a disproportionate opportunity to be heroes and good citizens as well. After all, for the same reasons that Muslims will be disproportionately hassled, they will also have more opportunities to help thwart extremist Muslims in our midst. Here's the moral of Sept. 13: Law enforcement will make mistakes that will inconvenience everybody -- even when it does everything right. And, when these mistakes are made, Muslims shouldn't leap to the conclusion that bigotry was the motivation. And, when the cops get it right and they nail the bad guys, the rest of us shouldn't leap to the conclusion that the Eunice Stone behind the scenes isn't a Muslim.