and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
April #4

Tierney misses chance to stand up for vigilance
in face of terrorism
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The debate continues as to what the administration, teachers and students might have done to prevent the killings at Virginia Tech.

Since the nation is still debating what could have been done to prevent the events of 9/11, the answer won't be resolved to everyone's satisfaction anytime soon.

There was one thing that seemed to be resolved, both about 9/11 and in a general way that relates to this latest tragedy: Americans were told, by their president and local law enforcement, to be alert and report any suspicious activity.

Sounds simple and obvious. But of course, in USA 2007, nothing ever is as simple or obvious as it appears.

Some airline passengers were recently sued by six Muslim clerics after they reported that the "flying imams" were exhibiting strange behavior before boarding a U.S Airways flight.

This is outrageous: If ordinary citizens can be intimidated by the threat of lawsuits from doing what signs at the airport tell them to do, all travelers are in greater danger than before.

On April 13, WTKK talk show host Michael Graham shared a column written by Debra Burlingame in the New York Post, concerning the March 27 House vote on H.R. 1401, the Rail and Public Transportation Act -- a $7.3-billion transportation bill to fund additional security. She wrote that Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., had offered an amendment to protect us citizens from lawsuits like this, which passed after some debate. But, Graham reported, all members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, with one exception, voted against it.

On the Internet I found H.R 1401 and Roll Call No. 200. As I had already guessed, the congressman who voted to protect us was Steve Lynch of Boston.

So I called my own congressman, John Tierney of Salem, to find out why he voted not to. I figured that the only possible responses were, a) "I didn't know what I was voting on", b) "I voted against it because it was a Republican idea so who cares if it's a good one", or c) "I think Americans SHOULD be sued for alerting officials that suspicious-looking passengers are a possible threat."

A week later, I received his official response (see below), which I'm not buying.

I found the House debate, which was initiated by a motion by Rep. King to recommit the bill with instructions to Homeland Security to protect alert passengers from legal liability for reporting suspicious activity.

"If we are going to be serious, as a nation, about fighting Islamic terrorism, then we have to stand by our people who come forward and report suspicious activity. So I think it is absolutely essential that this motion to recommit be passed. I can't imagine anyone being opposed to it," King declared.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who had been working on a bill to accomplish this since the lawsuit, described the U.S. Airways event:

The imams "used a seating pattern that was similar to the 9/11 attackers. They asked for seatbelt extensions, and then didn't use them but laid them at their feet in an ominous gesture of disrespect. They did not sit in assigned seats. The loud criticism of President Bush and the war all added together to create a mood of uncertainty among passengers who were watching."

He continued: "Ever since 9/11, law enforcement agencies have been telling the American people that they should immediately report any suspicious activity. This important step is one of the best ways that we have to stop terrorism. In essence, the public is the eyes and ears for the security of the nation."

"Sadly, a lawsuit has been filed in Minnesota which named as defendants the Americans who were simply trying to protect themselves and their country. These everyday people have now found themselves subject to a lawsuit for simply reporting what they thought in good faith was suspicious activity.

"We are in grave danger when terrorists and their sympathizers use our freedoms against us. ... If we allow these lawsuits to go forward, it will have a chilling effect on the future of American security. If we are serious about fighting terrorism ... then we must pass this motion."

"Today we are going to make that choice on the floor of the House, to choose political correctness or to choose to protect the people in this country and the people who would bring the attention of suspicious activities to the nation's authorities."

Most House members chose protection: 199 Republicans and 105 Democrats voted yes, 121 Democrats, including Rep. Tierney, voted no.

Burlingame wrote in her column that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was allowing arguments for political correctness until a wiser Democrat caught the eye of one of those opposing King's motion and drew his hand across his neck -- a signal that Democrats were about to cut their political throats on this issue. Pelosi then called the vote, and the bill was resubmitted to Homeland Security, which quickly approved it and sent it back; after which it passed the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate.

I ask myself: Will Senators Kennedy and Kerry choose political correctness, or protection for the American people? Or will they and Congressman Tierney let the terrorists win?

Tierney's response:  Let courts decide

The following statement was e-mailed to Anderson by Congressman John Tierney's press secretary, Catherine Ribeiro:

I am mindful of the concern that citizens perceiving danger not be "chilled" from warning about that danger. Such a worry should be balanced against any risk that some might act unreasonably or rush to judgment on others based on less than credible cause or as a result of "profiling."

Rather than legislate for every possible circumstance where such a situation may arise (an impossible task, as would be any effort to legislate the standards or criteria for deciding each matter), such determinations fall within the judicial system's purview. It is uniquely qualified to elicit the relevant facts and weigh the evidence in such cases.

The judicial system has been capable over time of determining what causes of action have merit for consideration and which parties to a case should be retained or dismissed from involvement based on facts and the law. For those who might attempt to abuse the system by inappropriately bringing suit or naming a party to a suit, the courts have available ample authority to remedy the situation. Should a case be brought that any court deems frivolous, sanctions and penalties may be imposed by the court. These include ordering the offending party to pay legal fees and costs to the injured party.

Given the foregoing facts, it does not appear advisable to interject legislative action focusing on a single alleged set of facts as opposed to considering broader policy concerning court jurisdiction over classes of action or of people. It was noted during debate that although the airline had been named and "John Does" or unnamed persons had been listed for discovery purposes, as of now, in fact, there has not been any claim of improper or frivolous claim or naming of parties which a court had failed to remedy on its own. Though the impulse to legislate existed on such sympathetic facts, I believe the proper course was to trust the determination of facts and law in this specific case, as in others, to the courts.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.