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3 detained in Florida scare...

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First, a high-profile false alarm in Florida; then the arrest of five terror suspects in western New York. Together, the two events raise questions about how zealous Americans should be as tipsters in the homefront war on terrorism.

"I don't know if anyone has the perfect answer," said Khalid Qazi, president of the American Muslim Council of Western New York, wondering how to strike a balance between vigilance and paranoia.

After a daylong drama on the south Florida highway known as Alligator Alley, three Muslim medical students were released Friday without charges. They had been detained based on the suspicions of a woman who overheard parts of their conversation at a Shoney's restaurant in Georgia.

Authorities commended the woman, Eunice Stone, for calling police. Even Muslim leaders, while depicting the incident as a case of racial profiling, stopped short of saying Stone's action was malicious.

"I'm sure she believes she really heard some threats," Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Monday.

"But there's a problem when you basically deputize everyone in America. Does a person reading the Koran in the airport, or a man wearing a skullcap, constitute suspicious activity? Where does it leave us?"

Law enforcement authorities, from the federal level on down, have encouraged the public to report any suspicious activity since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and have not complained about false alarms.

"Any time a citizen feels that they have witnessed something suspicious, we want them to notify the appropriate authorities," said Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo. "Citizen vigilance is an essential part of the fight against terrorism here at home."

Yet one of the department's initiatives for expanding public vigilance, Operation TIPS, has run into widespread opposition, from both conservatives and liberals. Even the U.S. Postal Service shunned the program, in which truckers, train conductors, utility employees and others were supposed to report systematically on suspicious activities.

A proposal for a scaled-back TIPS program remains pending. Among its foes is the American Civil Liberties Union, which says TIPS would "recruit 1 million volunteers to act as spies and informants against their neighbors."

The ACLU's executive director, Anthony Romero, said utility workers and truckers would be more prone to fall for hoaxes or to engage in racial profiling than law enforcement officers.

"We will quickly spiral down into anarchy if we begin to ask ordinary citizens to play the role that only trained authorities should play," Romero said.

In contrast to the Florida false alarm, authorities are claiming a substantive breakthrough in Lackawanna, N.Y., with the arrest of five men of Yemeni descent who allegedly were trained in Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.

Federal officials have thanked Muslim-Americans in western New York for helping them crack the suspected cell, but have not said how they assisted.

"The Muslim community is perhaps even more vigilant than the average American, they will do their patriotic duty," Qazi said.

"But it is a delicate balance. There is a real need to eradicate any operatives, but on the other hand, it has become very difficult for these communities to enjoy the civil liberties they enjoyed in the past. There's almost paranoia about anyone doing anything unusual."

Regarding the Florida incident, Qazi said, "The impact is very chilling, Muslim-Americans can't even talk and joke in a restaurant."

Hooper urged Americans to use good judgment in deciding whether to file a report with police.

"If you heard someone saying, 'We're going to bomb this place tonight,' you should report it," he said. "But you have to keep from reacting based on prejudice and stereotype; you need to react based on real things."

In Georgia, Eunice Stone has defended her actions and stands by her account that the three Muslim medical students made suspicious remarks about the terrorist attacks. The students deny making any provocative statements, either serious terrorist threats or joking references to the attacks.

Romero said the case raised questions about how Americans should react to overheard remarks that might be considered offensive.

"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 said. "We have to have more faith in the ability to engage each other, staking out different points of view. That's the American way."

personally I think we should be a little more concious and not judge people based on their apperance.

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