Had the government acted with a bit more common sense -- not to mention common decency -- it might have avoided the federal lawsuit that five Muslim-Americans have filed for being stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border when returning from an Islamic conference in Toronto late last year.
From day one, the people stopped and detained for up to six and a half hours had been asking a simple question: Why? They have yet to receive an answer. Is it any wonder that some have now gone to the courts?
We understand that Sept. 11 changed the rules when it comes to homeland security. But even in this new world, detaining American citizens based only on their appearance -- if that is, in fact, what happened -- cannot be tolerated.
The five Muslims -- three from Amherst, one from Niagara Falls and one from Brooklyn -- contend that they were unlawfully detained for up to six and a half hours at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge on Dec. 26 and 27. All five are U.S. citizens who were carrying passports or New York State driver's licenses. One woman said she was asked to remove her hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf.
They were among about 35 people detained following the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference in Toronto. The mayor of Toronto and the Ontario premier spoke at the conference. Given the treatment of the Muslims at the border, it appeared that Washington had some sort of intelligence that would lead one to believe that at least some people who attended were a threat to U.S. security. The Western New York chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council spent a few days in Washington with various Homeland Security, counter-terrorism and civil rights officials. But the people who were stopped have no better idea today of why they were stopped than they had last December.
Council officials said they plan to continue to work with elected officials to ensure that Homeland Security personnel deal with terrorism-related issues in a way that offers protection without compromising civil rights.
A Homeland Security official recently traveled to Buffalo, although not to explain the fiasco at the border. Daniel Sutherland, officer for civil rights and civil liberties, had no answers to questions raised about the border incident. He mainly emphasized greater communication.
As a result of the detention, Sutherland said the incident has helped facilitate further discussion about proper procedures at the border. Although he wouldn't categorize what happened as "right or wrong," generally speaking, discussions about "proper procedure" aren't carried out when things go right. Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the local chapter of the Muslim Council, is hoping that the incident at the border is the beginning of a more constructive dialogue with Homeland Security authorities, locally and nationally. We hope he's right.
Interestingly, the lawsuit seeks no specific monetary damages. It simply asks the court to stop border agents from detaining, interrogating, fingerprinting and photographing Muslim-Americans because they are returning from religious conferences. Further, the lawsuit asks that all fingerprints and photographs taken at the border be returned to the five people or destroyed.
It seems the lawsuit is simply asking for the dignity that was not given the plaintiffs back in December.