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Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2002 / 17 Tishrei, 5763

John Leo

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Consumer Reports

A $100,000 joke?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | What really happened in the case of the three Muslim medical students and Eunice Stone? She is the nurse who said she overheard the students on September 12 at a Georgia restaurant, apparently talking about plans for terrorism the next day. Stone said she knew they might have been joking (her son, who was there, said, "Oh, Momma, they're just messing with you") but felt she had to report their comments, just in case the danger was real.

In her account, they mentioned plans to "bring it down," which she thought might refer to an explosion, and one of the men laughingly said "if they are mourning about September 11, what will they think about September 13?"

Let's offer a probability rating, just as weather forecasters do when discussing chances of rain. Probability that the three men were terrorists who thought it was a good idea to discuss their plot loudly at a Shoney's restaurant in Calhoun, Ga., the day before an attack-under 1 percent. Probability that Stone decided to call attention to herself by making up this story or that she misconstrued a memorable line about September 13-also 1 percent or less. Probability that the students were playing a joke, then refused to take responsibility when the incident blew up into an all-day scare on cable TV-98 or 99 percent.

The students' credibility suffered greatly after authorities stopped them and shut down Alligator Alley, a major Florida highway, to check their two cars for explosives. None were found, but federal and county authorities said the three students, interviewed separately, gave accounts that didn't match. Tina Osceola, a spokeswoman for the Collier County sheriff's department, said their stories "weren't the same, didn't corroborate, and weren't consistent." This seems a polite way of saying that they were lying.

Bias card. Experience tells us that in situations like this, we are never very far from allegations of bias and racial profiling. Sure enough. One student, Ayman Gheith, said that after Stone noticed his Muslim garb, "maybe she put a little salt and pepper in her story." He said she was "flat-out lying." Gheith's sister said the three had made the mistake of stopping for a meal in Georgia, implying that the whole state is so racist that no Muslim should ever risk eating there. Muslim organizations joined in. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the students were under suspicion "because of the way they dress."

Oddly, the media didn't buy the racial-profiling complaint. The general assumption was that the men had been caught in a prank. Perhaps because the hoax theory was so dominant, the students and their four lawyers evolved a new and softer media message. By Sunday, Nurse Stone was no longer a flat-out liar but rather a kindly though mistaken bystander who had been "trying to be a patriot." Her health was of high concern to the students (by then she'd been hospitalized for stress). One of the students, Kambiz Butt, said he and the others were good Americans, in shock, scared, and eager to clear their names.

Another change in the students' message: They had indeed used the phrase "bring it down" at Shoney's, just as Stone reported, but the reference was to bringing a car from Kansas City to Miami. Why it took three days to mention the car was not explained. The bias charge was still there, but muted. On Crossfire, Gheith shied away from the term "racial profiling" but thought his Middle Eastern appearance had caused the trouble, because "had her eyes been closed and she heard this conversation, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be in the spot we are today." The students still seem to be manipulating the media instead of just telling the truth.

An odd comment came from Anthony Romero, the new ACLU executive director: "Satire, humor, jokes are part of our everyday lives. We shouldn't be afraid that what we say might trigger a reaction from law enforcement." Romero apparently acknowledges that this looks like a hoax yet defends it on free-speech grounds. But it is not all right to joke about staging a terrorist attack. It's dangerous, it puts great stress on law enforcement, and it can cost a lot of money-more than $100,000 in this case. Authorities said the 17-hour closing of Alligator Alley was the most expensive traffic stop in Florida history. All post-9/11 hoaxes should be taken seriously. People who mailed baby powder and other fake versions of anthrax faced criminal charges. So should hoaxers who talk of terrorist plots.

At week's end there were signs that Attorney General John Ashcroft's detractors may cite this case as a horrible example of what would happen if citizens were recruited to report suspicious activity, as called for in the TIPS program. But Eunice Stone behaved well in reporting what might have been a serious plot. It's no horrible example, just an ordinary citizen doing the right thing.

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JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts: Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.

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