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A greater threat to U.S. security: our prejudices

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 24, 2002

I listened for hours to reports from Alligator Alley where three medical students were detained earlier this month on suspicion they were headed to Miami to "bring down" something, apparently the goal of a terrorist plot they had fine-tuned at a Shoney's in Calhoun, Ga.

I heard a sheriff say haltingly, as if he had not yet convinced himself, that he would characterize the men as uncooperative.

I heard law enforcement and elected officials call Eunice Stone an American hero for alerting authorities after she apparently overheard the conversation that seemed threat-filled.

I heard most of those same people urge prosecution of the three men if it turned out they were perpetrating a hoax.

The students denied making comments threatening terrorism, seriously or as a hoax.

I listened for hours.

I didn't hear anyone say what should happen to Stone if she were making up the accusations.

There was no way to know the truth at that point, no way to know whose version of events was accurate. Investigators knew little of the woman who reported the conversation, all those politicians taking platforms to call her a hero knew less, and the public, which got its information from the same news reports I did, knew even less.

There was no evidence to indicate where the truth lay, as investigators blew up a book bag or lunch box taken from one of the two cars. There was nothing, as bomb-sniffing dogs alerted falsely, as they often do, to indicate to whom credibility should be assigned.

After 17 hours of detention, there was still nothing to indicate who should be believed.

But the nation didn't seem to have a problem with parceling out credibility: Woman who reported what she thought she overheard from another booth in a restaurant, 100 percent; men who denied saying it, 0.

Good American, 100 percent; terrorist suspects, 0.

White woman, 100 percent; Middle Eastern men, 0.

Kambiz Butt
Ayman Gheith
Omar Chaudhary
Kambiz Butt, top, Ayman Gheith, center, and Omar Chaudhary, who were reportedly overheard talking about a terrorist plot, were pulled over and detained for 17 hours before authorities said the men were apparently kidding around and released them.
With no evidence to go on, and with judgment based only on prejudice, in America credibility looks like Eunice Stone.

The episode had no villains. Unless Stone lied about what she heard. Unless the three men lied about what they said. If Stone heard, or thought she heard someone -- anyone -- talking about blowing up a building, she should have reported it. The police should have tracked the car and detained the men until they were satisfied there was no threat. That much of it we got right.

Since last September, the threat of terrorism has become real and has formed a cloud over our lives. Each of us has a duty to do what we can to thwart any threat. Stone and law enforcement agencies did that.

Then the rest of us got into it with our presumption of guilt.

We forgot that overheard conversations, lacking context and loaded with blanks to be filled in, are often -- no, usually -- misconstrued. We forgot that people, for attention, spite or excitement, sometimes make up stories, like the man in Las Vegas a few months ago who claimed to have overheard a terrorist plot on his cell phone.

We forgot that guilt, not innocence, requires proof, that any uninvited intrusion into our lives by the state is a serious assault on our freedom.

Right now, we should be asking ourselves why. Why were we so quick to take sides in a classic he-said, she-said situation? Why were we so quick to demand prosecution when we had no basis for knowing a crime had been committed? Why were we not outraged when the hospital to which the men were going to study told them they were no longer welcome, even after an investigation cleared them of wrongdoing?

We need to examine those questions because the terrorism threat, like the episode on Alligator Alley, eventually will go away. The excuse of vigilance also will fade. We need to examine those questions because the ugly, suspicious, intolerant side of us we're seeing now was not created by these times but revealed by them.

We need to use the glare as a time to learn about ourselves and change, not to wrap ourselves in denial by calling these extreme times. Americans have always had a facility for nullifying groups of people the way many did the three students. There was a time not long ago when black defendants wasted time by going to trial on their way to prison, especially if their accuser was white. Guilt was presumed, claims of innocence were offensive assaults on the integrity of the accusers, a parallel to much of the reaction to the three men detained last week.

Americans have always had a willingness to sacrifice freedom for security, so long as it was somebody else's rights and their freedom. Stopping people based on profiles makes perfect sense to people who don't fit the profile. The Sept. 11 terrorists were of Middle Eastern ancestry, they say, therefore it makes perfect sense to err on the side of caution and single out Middle Eastern men for scrutiny.

By that kind of inductive reasoning, we should stop the advancement of middle-age white men at middle management or lower. The security of the nation's large corporations could depend on it. The marauding CEOs who destroyed companies and lives in the last couple of years were all middle-age white men, or had strong ties to them.

Those who are not guilty should be willing to endure the inconvenience of forfeiting millions of dollars in future earnings for the sake of national security.

I am.

(Hmmm. I'll have to do that more often. It feels good -- downright patriotic -- to make a sacrificial offering of someone else's rights and freedom.)

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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