LAST fall, six Muslim clerics flying to Phoenix from a conference in Minnesota were removed from their plane after passengers reported what they considered to be suspicious behavior by the men.
Predictably, the imams now are suing.
That development might warrant no more than shrugged shoulders and "it figures."
But what transforms the civil rights lawsuit into something of immeasurably greater concern is that the aggrieved clerics are suing not only the airline and Minneapolis airport, but the passengers who raised suspicions to authorities.
That's absurd. If successful, the suit could shred the first line of defense against terrorism in this country - an alert public.
The Transportation Security Administration relies on passengers being its eyes and ears, ever alert to anything out of the ordinary.
Whether they like it or not, the imams on the flight out of Minneapolis fit that description. They were seen chanting in Arabic, and asked for seat-belt extenders which they then stowed. They were sitting separately.
Is there a passenger who, confronted with the same scenario, would not have reported their suspicions to a crew member?
The loudspeakers in airports replay the mantra: Be alert. Be on the watch for suspicious activity. Don't leave bags unattended.
Security is uppermost on the mind of airline passengers, and it is ludicrous to suggest that the passengers who reported the imams' behavior were somehow acting inappropriately or with prejudice.
But that's exactly what the attorney for the imams suggests, while also claiming the intent of the suit isn't to go after passengers who raise legitimate security concerns.
If this suit is successful, however, it could make every passenger think twice before raising a security alarm for fear of being snared in endless legal difficulties if those concerns prove groundless.
The clerics, who were removed from the plane, claim they were humiliated. And perhaps they were.
But what were passengers and crew supposed to do in the tense atmosphere of an airplane prior to takeoff? Ignore the behavior that was thought to be suspicious? Look the other way and pray they were wrong?
As every passenger who passes through an airport knows, there's heightened tension, a mixture of the stress of making it to the gate on time and the nagging, back-of-the mind thoughts of safety and security.
In the post-9/11 world, the passengers who spoke up about the clerics shouldn't be subject to legal sanction. They deserve commendation.