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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Drama Queens on U.S. Airways

Culture Race

Remember that news item in November about the six imams pulled off of a U.S. Airways flight in Minneapolis? Well, this week they have sued U.S. Airways.

One gentleman prayed at salient volume before boarding time, with ample shouts of "Allah." Once on board, some requested different seats, planting themselves two at the front, two in the middle, and two in the back of the plane — meaning control of all exits, which brings to mind a certain episode that begins with 9 and ends in 11.

And then, three imams, albeit modestly proportioned, asked for seatbelt extenders — and slipped them under their seats. Seatbelt extenders have heavy metal buckles. What did they want to do with them? Not use them as pillows.

The imams were removed from the flight and not allowed to rebook. And since this was so clearly a mere matter of the poor clerics being pulled aside for "Flying While Muslim," there was nothing to do, but sue the airline. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has enlightened us with the real deal: the passengers and crew "succumbed to fear and prejudice based on stereotyping of Muslims and Islam."

So this was the benighted, paranoid essence always lurking just below the surface of us arrogant, overfed Americans?

No. Anyone who cheers for these performance artists as their quest for celebrity victimhood is forgetting what the civil-rights conversation they are tapping into was really about.

Yes, performance artists. Scans of their luggage revealed nothing sinister. We can't know whether they were actually planning on doing something bad, and they seem a little long in the tooth to have been itching to pull a Mohammed Atta, the head suicide terrorist, as noted by the FBI, of American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center on September 11.

The most plausible interpretation is that they were endeavoring to savor scaring the hell out of the people they were on board with. The imams knew they would be pulled off the plane, and could then go to the press with their tale of "profiling."

So, yes, they were performing in opposition to America, the Great Satan.

As such, they committed what one could call a performative hate crime. It deserves no more respect or empathy than that.

When the shoe is on the other foot, we're all in line. Blinkered bigotry against Arabs will not be tolerated.

In Washington state a few weeks ago a drunken couple physically assaulted an Arab convenience store owner amidst tarring him as a "f----ing Arabian" who was "un-American." The couple now faces spending the better part of a year in prison for committing a hate crime, and they should. America's commitment to teaching its citizens to not act on the easy temptation of bigotry is a sign of enlightenment.

But our imams, in that light, are desperately unenlightened. Their little play was presumably founded on a sentiment that America deserves condemnation. We arrogant, overfed sybarites need to be taught some more lessons. Yet their position is no less fuzzily reasoned than the bigotry of an inebriated couple.

The imams' hatred of America is based, in part, on jealousy — an unreasoned emotion that breaks loose from the intellect.

The imams' politics also are founded in gut-level tribalism that exempts their own from serious condemnation. They are mad that American soldiers occupy Saudi Arabia, but lack an equally white-hot animus against Saudi rulers for allowing them there. They are mad at our support for Israel, but would never have fashioned performance art to stick it to Yasser Arafat, who allowed his flock to sit mired in Third World poverty as he sequestered big bucks for his own use.

The imams' contempt for America is based almost completely on brutish, visceral kinds of impulses.

One of the imams complains that "We were humiliated and treated as if we were criminals," as if their actions, in the wake of 9/11, could possibly have been allowed to pass by reasonable human beings. This man and his friends are not dwelling in the rational world and to think otherwise is to disqualify oneself as seriously engaged with our present reality.

As sophisticated moderns, we can police ourselves for stereotyping and pride ourselves on refinement — rising above what is ingrained and easy. However, unless we want to propose that Arabs are of lesser mental sophistication than we are, we must squarely condemn these drama-queen imams for their abusive, self-medicating capitulation to the Id.