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It used to be that the only people I knew who were concerned about the behavior of fellow mass-transit passengers were Israelis. But that was before 9/11, before the "shoe bomber," before the Madrid railway attacks and the 2005 suicide bombings in the London Underground.
Like it or not, the mantra "If you see something, say something" is simply part of the reality of American life in the age of the war on Islamist terror. Indeed, it was exactly this sort of routine vigilance on the part of a young clerk at a Circuit City electronics outlet store this spring that led to the uncovering of a local Islamist plot to murder US soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J.
But while that young man was justly celebrated for his good deed, others with equally reasonable suspicions of foul play can expect something quite different: a lawsuit.
PASSENGERS on a US Airways flight in Minneapolis last November noticed six Islamic clerics behaving in a suspicious manner. They were not merely praying loudly before boarding, but didn't sit in their assigned seats and spread out around the airplane and asked for unneeded seatbelt extenders.
Frightened by the possibility of a hijacking, the passengers reported this behavior to authorities. The six Muslims, now known as the "flying imams," were questioned and then exonerated. But it didn't end there.
Rather than express understanding of the situation, with the help of the Council of American Islamic Relations the imams accused everyone involved in the incident of anti-Muslim prejudice and are suing the passengers they frightened.
The goal of the lawsuit is not just revenge for their experience, but to send a message to anyone who associates Muslims with terror - no matter how reasonable their suspicions might be - that they should think twice before saying anything.
THE POSSIBILITY of such lawsuits, not to mention the certainty that CAIR will label those who report questionable activity to the authorities "racists," will deter such citizens and thus potentially make it easier for terrorists to operate in the open.
Some members of Congress have responded to this problem and are seeking to add to a Homeland Security bill an amendment that would give immunity to anyone who reported in good faith suspicious activity on mass transit. Though the provision, sponsored by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), was passed in both Houses of Congress, it may yet be discarded when competing House and Senate bills are reconciled in conference.
If that happens, it will be because some of our politicians are more interested in their war on the Bush administration than in giving honest citizens protection against frivolous lawsuits by the Islamist race-baiters at CAIR, whose roots as a support group for Hamas betray their own extremist agenda.
But at the heart of this controversy isn't just partisanship, or a desire to protect innocent Muslims from humiliation. What this is about is the legitimacy of the war on Islamist terror itself.
INSIGHT INTO this dilemma was provided, ironically enough, by the first professed Muslim to serve in Congress: freshman Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).
Ellison caused a regrettable kerfuffle when some pundits wrongly expressed opposition to his decision to take his oath of office last January by swearing on the Koran. His defenders sought to downplay any notion that this former supporter of Louis Farrakhan was anything but an ardent defender of civil liberties.
But in a July 8 speech, Ellison revealed himself to be someone who looks at the post-9/11 world from a CAIR-like frame of reference. In it, he compared America's response to that attack to the way the Nazis exploited the 1933 burning of the Reichstag in Berlin.
The statement was not just a classic example of Michael Moore-style, over-the-top hatred of Bush, but revealed a sensibility that saw the entire effort to fight al-Qaida and render future terror attacks less likely as inherently illegitimate.
In Ellison's vision, the belated efforts by Americans to wake up to the reality of the Islamist threat was a nightmare based on fraud and fear-mongering Nazi-look-alikes, not a nation asserting its right to defend itself against terror.
THAT SUCH sentiments exist in the fever swamps of both the far-Right and Left in this country is no secret. That they are being put about by members of Congress - especially the man embraced by American Muslims as their role model and spokesman - is telling.
The speech also generated one of those controversies that illustrate how distorted both political discourse and interfaith communal relations have become.
In response to his use of an inappropriate Nazi analogy, the Anti-Defamation League first reached out to Ellison. Seeking to make friends rather than merely to shoot from the hip, the ADL met with the congressman to try and coax him back in off the ledge. But though the Minnesotan now says he agrees with ADL's position, he was slow to backtrack; and after the affair dragged on for weeks, the group's leader, Abe Foxman, finally issued a statement taking him to task.
Ellison's reaction was to play the victim and claim he was "blindsided" by Foxman's reproof since he eventually intended to say something, though he won't now. Thus, rather than the focus being on Ellison's wild charges, Foxman wound up in the dock.
Due to Ellison's clever spin, the reaction to his speech was treated as the offense, not his appropriation of Holocaust imagery to smear the anti-terror campaign. The issue became Foxman's supposed eagerness to garner publicity and to shrei gevalt, not Ellison's embrace of extremist rhetoric. But Foxman had been dead right about Ellison.
PRIOR TO 9/11, America was asleep to the threat from Islamist terrorists, and their apologists and rationalizers. After that national trauma, more of us began to think about the danger and take action.
It is true that the Homeland Security Department created to coordinate our defense has been a disappointing boondoggle. And a fear of accusations of racism from CAIR has led to a refusal to use profiling techniques that has rendered airline-security measures a joke, as old ladies can be strip-searched while those who are more likely to be dangerous are left alone. But though the possibility of another atrocity exists, there has been no repeat of 9/11.
While the administration has plenty of mistakes to answer for, the real danger is the return to the pre-9/11 apathetic mindset that Ellison and his allies at CAIR are encouraging.
If it has gotten to the point where people like the US Airways passengers and Abe Foxman are seen as the problem - and not the jihad-rationalizers at CAIR or a congressman who thinks Republicans are Nazis - then we are back to square one in the war on terror. If so, that is bad news not just for the ADL and Bush, but for all of us.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.