I don’t read many conservative blogs. I enjoy some quasi-conservative libertarian-types — Marginal Revolution, Daniel Drezner, Balloon Juice, The Volokh Conspiracy. (Even if libertarian policy principles are kind of crazy, they are often smart and provocative.) But the hard-core rightosphere, places like Little Green Footballs and Powerline and Michelle Malkin, I just find creepy. (But I must point out that I’m box office at The Free Republic: see here, here, here, and here. Freepers find me fascinating.)
It’s truly a different world, and worth an occasional glance, just to be reminded that the set of “important news stories” can be entirely distinct from what I might think. For example, I’d been completely ignorant of the menace of the flying imams, the subject of literally hundreds of breathless blog posts. Not being an aficionado of modern religions myself, at first I thought they had something to do with yogic flying, but it turns out that’s something else entirely.
The story is that six Muslim clerics were removed from a US Airways flight from Minnesota to Phoenix a couple of weeks ago, accused of acting suspiciously. They were led away in handcuffs before being questioned and released, while their flight left without them. US Airways refused to let them travel on a different flight the next day; they eventually flew home on other airlines.
As far as I can tell, the suspicious behavior consisted of the following:
- Speaking Arabic.
- Saying “Allah” out loud, several times.
- Remarking unfavorably about US policy in Iraq.
- Sitting in seats “reminiscent of a 9/11 hijackers seating configuration.” I think that means they weren’t all sitting together — some were even in first class!
- Requesting seat-belt extenders, even though they weren’t really all that overweight.
- Moving about the airplane, before takeoff, to talk with each other.
That’s about it.
To me, it sounds like the US Airways flight crew overreacted a bit. The seat-belt extender business is apparently suspicious because they could potentially be used as weapons. Picture in your mind’s eye, six imams (one of whom was blind) swinging their seat-belt extenders like nunchucks, overpowering a planeload of pasty Midwesterners. The “moving around” also has a relatively prosaic explanation — one of the imams who had upgraded to first-class decided to offer his seat to his blind colleague, who declined the offer. See, if they had been cold-hearted atheists who didn’t have religion to tell them to be nice to each other, all of this could have been avoided.
But, ultimately, I don’t place too much blame on the flight crew for reacting as they did. A situation unfolding in real time is always unclear, and caution is warranted; better to inconvenience a few people than put an entire flight at risk. Although I don’t think the situation was handled well, it was an understandable overreaction, and should be something we can put behind us. Mistakes were made, sorry about that, can’t be too careful, etc.
The bloggers who jumped all over the original reports, though — they don’t think that way. They can’t think that way. It must have been a real threat, or their entire worldview is in jeopardy.
Debbie Schlussel is outraged that the imams haven’t been banned from flying on airplanes for all eternity. (For what, exactly?) Instapundit thinks that anti-Muslim sentiment is their fault. Michelle Malkin claims that one of the imams admitted supporting Osama Bin Laden! Okay, the alleged support was against the Russians in the early 1990’s, and was encouraged by the CIA at the time. But still! Pajamas Media thinks it must have been a “dry run.” Apparently, it eventually dawned on some people that praying loudly and shouting “Allah” would probably not be recommended doctrine if you actually did want to sneak onto an airplane and stage a surprise mid-air coup, so all that praying and talking in Arabic must have been part of a coordinated campaign to soften up security personnel before the next actual attack. Or something like that; I can’t keep all the theories straight.
The entire incident is reminiscent of the time in June 2004 when journalist Annie Jacobsen freaked out at the presence of a group of Middle Eastern men on a plane. Not only were the men completely harmless Syrian musicians, but it turns out that Jacobsen’s own behavior had potentially put the flight in danger, in the opinion of air marshals.
What would you do, if you were Annie Jacobsen? Realize that you had overreacted just a tad, and examine how deep-seated fears can lead to unwarranted conclusions? No, if you were Annie Jacobsen you would write a book about how we’re not nearly afraid enough of dark-skinned people on our airplanes.
We’re very proud, in this country, of our commitment to equality, liberty, and the rule of law. But a lot of Americans are living in fear right now, and are willing to sacrifice much of the freedom that makes this country what it is in order to combat that fear. How far are they willing to go? Newt Gingrich is campaigning against the First Amendment. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress (and the guest of honor at the conference the flying imams were attending), is accused by Dennis Prager of undermining American civilization because he will take the oath of office on a Koran instead of a Bible. When radio host Jerry Klein suggested — as a spoof — that American Muslims should be forced to wear identifying tattoos or armbands, reminiscent of Nazi measures against Jews, he was disgusted to hear many audience members call in to express their full-throated support for the idea.
This fear is real, and politicians will take advantage of it, shamelessly and unapologetically. I’m not worried that the U.S. will descend into actual authoritarian rule, as these things are understood worldwide. But encroachments on liberty in the name of security can be pernicious and severe even if they come very gradually. That’s a much bigger threat to our society than terrorism will ever be.