Wednesday, July 25, 2007

John Does and American Security

As I noted a couple of days ago, I was watching The O'Reilly Factor with guest host Michelle Malkin. She was talking about a bill that was being voted on that would have allowed for people who provide information in situations of possible terrorism to receive legal immunity. Being the continual skeptic that I am, I had to do some research on this one.

For those not familiar, this bill is being sponsored by Peter King, a representative from New York. The bill arose as a response to the Flying Imams controversy from 2006. The controversy swirled around six American Muslims. The story varies on which side you hear, but some passengers had a belief that the men were going to blow up the plane or hijack the plane a la 9/11. In fact, as all of the facts were sorted out, the Imams were returning back to Phoenix after attending a conference and had no connection to terrorism. Given these facts, the Imams have decided to sue the people who thought they were suspicious, US Airways, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Rep. King brought this bill forward to stop people from being intimidated by the prospect of a lawsuit to bring credible information about terrorism to the authorities, which is a stupid reason to not report something if you believe it is suspicious. I thought intimidation was the whole reason that the Federal Witness Protection program was started.

If you go to the Internet like I did to find credible information on this case, you will be pretty much shit out of luck. Much of the information that you will find plays to the fact that we are living in a state of terror where anyone can attack at anytime, although all proof of this idea is pretty much null as America has not been attacked since 9/11/2001. But, this does not stop people from acting irrationally and this amendment is a prime example of this irrationality.

Irrational or not, the bill upon which this amendment was attached has been worked on and can be on Bush's desk before the Congress goes on August recess. This amendment will make me ashamed to be an American after it goes into law, which it most likely will.

My shame is in the fact that this bill has essentially condones racial/religious profiling. As is well known by anyone who has looked at it without an agenda of their own, racial profiling doesn't work. It is an ineffective form of policing that also creates a chilling effect amongst the communities that are profiled, most likely communities of color. Because of the fear that they will be persecuted for crimes that they did not commit because they are close to the profile of the actual criminal, people in these communities are far more hesitant to trust and work with the police.

The Muslims, who, as a culture, are a pariah due to the actions of a rogue few, will now turn into martyrs tied to the stake planted in the bonfire of American fear and xenophobia. Their current fears of not being able to assimilate into the country will be further exacerbated by this "john doe" legislation. They will now be reported to the police if they are doing something that seems the slightest bit out of the normal now that tipsters have what amounts to whistleblower protection.

Whistleblower protection is not necessary if you are reporting really suspicious activity that could be related to terrorism because you should be taking the effort to report only if you are positive that something strange is happening. The example that is continually pointed to by the right is a Circuit City employee calling a tip hotline and stopping the attack on Fort Dix. Protection or not, this employee clearly had to call as the signs were quite clear.

Most of the information that led to the arrest of the Imams occurred before they got on the plane. From my perspective and what objective information that I can find on the case, what they were doing is nothing that is patently illegal or suspicious. According to the police report filed following the incident, they were praying and chanting, which if I remember correctly is an important part of the Islamic prayer service. Additionally, an witness reported them talking about Saddam Hussein and cursing about US involvement in Iraq. On this last one, I've done both of these things. Does that make me a terrorist? Should I get my form letter ready for the ACLU?

The only parts that happened on a plane were some movement between seats that isn't out of the ordinary. Additionally, they got seatbelt extensions, which I guess could be used as weapons. The last time I flew, I remember the seatbelt clips not being particularly heavy or at least not heavy enough to really harm someone with it. Additionally, how could you hurt someone with something that you would have to swing in a space where you can barely reach over your head? So, to me at least, this whole case reeks of religious discrimination, especially given the fact that the men were let go the same day after being completely cleared as non-terrorists and as American citizens.

According to MSNBC, there were attempts which failed to limit the amendment to cover just suspected terrorism and not crime. Since the talking head they brought on had no critical sense about him, he didn't elaborate on the greater consequences of such an action like the fact that this can possibly carry over into race issues as well since there is no delineation between crimes. But, let's not talk about race. That's not cool with the public who thinks that everything is just a-OK.

In the end, while I do think that the bill is a disgrace to the history of America as a free country where people can be held accountable to their actions, I also think that the new language is at least fair. From the Washington Times:

Any person who, in good faith and based on objectively reasonable suspicion, makes or causes to be made, a voluntary report of covered activity to an authorized official shall be immune from civil liability under federal, state and local law for such report

I don't like the use of the terms "good faith" and "objectively reasonable suspicion." Both of those phrases reek of "community standards" in Supreme Court decisions. Are the two terms going to be considered afterwards or at the moment of? I'd like that to be ironed out a little bit, and I might be more comfortable with this.

More than anything else, I am not comfortable with the language being used by the right with regards to this law. The right is insisting that by passing this law, America will be safer. Rep. John Boehner believes that Americans will be protected from frivolous lawsuits. I'm sorry, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, what is frivolous about a lawsuit to regain the respect that has been so brutally stripped through public embarrassment and unfounded accusation? What is frivolous about trying to regain one's dignity after being humiliated for practicing one's religion? Is that frivolous to you, Boehner? If that is frivolous to you, Mr. Boehner, god help us all.