When I arrived in San Francisco last Friday morning, I was whisked off to the local studios of a network news channel for a scheduled debate on Iraq. That debate never took place since I found myself transfixed by and commenting on a dramatic roadside search of suspected terrorists on a Florida highway.
That incident, as it turns out, has profound implications for the new systems and norms of public security based on citizen vigilance that have arisen in the post Sept. 11 environment. But just what lessons can be learned from the event remains troublingly opaque.
For almost an hour I was on the air with Eunice Stone of Cartersville, the woman who had alerted authorities to the three Muslim men who were stopped and detained on the roadside for 17 hours during the exhaustive search and interrogation. She provided a gripping account of the conversation she claimed to have overheard the men having in a Georgia restaurant, which was in turns obnoxious, disturbing and downright frightening. She seemed credible and consistent, and, like millions of Americans, my inclination at the time was to be deeply grateful for her intervention.
However, police later released and completely exonerated the men from all suspicions of terrorism. In interviews with the press, they indignantly denied every aspect of Stone’s story and suggested that her concerns were in fact prompted not by their conversation, but by their Middle Eastern appearance and Islamic dress. They also appeared credible and reasonable.
Simply put, one of these two parties is lying through their teeth, and much depends on who it is. Given the distance between their stories, there is almost no possibility of a mixup. Either the men were laughing about the Sept. 11 attacks or they were not. Either they were discussing “bringing it down” and “if they mourned Sept. 11th, how will they react to Sept. 13th” or something along those lines, or they weren’t.
It comes down to this: If Stone heard the conversation she reported, her actions were commendable, and this case would tend to suggest that citizen vigilance can be a useful aid to law enforcement without degenerating into unwarranted abuse. Although the men were cleared of any suspicions of terrorism, some have speculated that they were “joking” or performing a “hoax” on Stone. Young men have been known to engage in such reckless mischief, and testimonials from their relatives that they would not be capable of such irresponsible conduct frankly cuts little ice.
On the other hand, if the conversation did not take place as Stone described it and her concerns were based on perceived identity and not conduct, this incident would serve as an important confirmation of the worst fears regarding “citizen vigilance” systems. It would mean that the authorities and the public had been grotesquely misled by raw prejudice.
The result would be the serious abuse of three innocent medical students, who continue to suffer negative consequences as the hospital they were to intern at has now turned them away. American history clearly shows that apparently nice, respectable ladies are capable of racism as ugly as that practiced by white-hooded hoodlums.
So was this racism run amok, or did three foolish young men bring a world of trouble onto their own heads? As it stands, there is no way for the public to tell, especially as both parties seem so sympathetic and believable.
Federal and Georgia state authorities can and must conduct a thorough investigation to determine the truth of the matter, and make those facts public. That millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted on a wild goose chase is a secondary issue — what is important is what this false alarm indicates we can expect from citizen vigilance programs in coming months and years.
This case will not be the final word on them, no matter what the facts turn out to be. But they will be an important early indication of the extent to which public perceptions of what is and is not suspicious are useful aids to law enforcement, or are new vehicles for the worst forms of bigotry.
Hussein Ibish is communications director for the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee.