The hysterical skies

She survived a flight with 14 harmless Syrian musicians -- then spread 3,000 bigoted and paranoid words across the Internet. As a pilot and an American, I'm appalled.

Published July 21, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

In this space was supposed to be installment No. 6 of my multiweek dissertation on airports and terminals. The topic is being usurped by one of those nagging, Web-borne issues of the moment, in this case a reactionary scare story making the cyber-rounds during the past week.

The piece in question, "Terror in the Skies, Again?" is the work of Annie Jacobsen, a writer for Jacobsen shares the account of the emotional meltdown she and her fellow passengers experienced when, aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Los Angeles, a group of Middle Eastern passengers proceeded to act "suspiciously." I'll invite you to experience "Terror" yourself, but be warned it's quite long. It needs to be, I suppose, since ultimately it's a story about nothing, puffed and aggrandized to appear important.

The editors get the drama cooking with some foreboding music: "You are about to read an account of what happened," counsels a 70-word preamble. "The WWS Editorial Team debated long and hard about how to handle this information and ultimately we decided it was something that should be shared ... Here is Annie's story" [insert lower-octave piano chord here].

What follows are six pages of the worst grade-school prose, spring-loaded with mindless hysterics and bigoted provocation.

Fourteen dark-skinned men from Syria board Northwest's flight 327, seated in two separate groups. Some are carrying oddly shaped bags and wearing track suits with Arabic script across the back. During the flight the men socialize, gesture to one another, move about the cabin with pieces of their luggage, and, most ominous of all, repeatedly make trips to the bathroom. The author links the men's apparently irritable bladders to a report published in the Observer (U.K.) warning of terrorist plots to smuggle bomb components onto airplanes one piece at a time, to be secretly assembled in lavatories.

"What I experienced during that flight," breathes Jacobsen, "has caused me to question whether the United States of America can realistically uphold the civil liberties of every individual, even non-citizens, and protect its citizens from terrorist threats."

Intriguing, no? I, for one, fully admit that certain acts of airborne crime and treachery may indeed open the channels to a debate on civil liberties. Pray tell, what happened? Gunfight at 37,000 feet? Valiant passengers wrestle a grenade from a suicidal operative? Hero pilots beat back a cockpit takeover?

Well, no. As a matter of fact, nothing happened. Turns out the Syrians are part of a musical ensemble hired to play at a hotel. The men talk to one another. They glance around. They pee.

That's it?

That's it.

Now, in fairness to Jacobsen, I'll admit that in-flight jitters over the conspicuous presence of a group of young Arabs is neither unexpected nor, necessarily, irrational. She speaks of seven of the men standing in unison, a moment that, if unembellished, would have even the most culturally open-minded of us wide-eyed and grabbing our armrest. As everybody knows, it was not a gaggle of Canadian potato farmers who commandeered those jetliners on Sept. 11. See also the legacy of air crimes over the past several decades, from Pan Am 103 to the UTA bombing to the failed schemings of Ramzi Yousef, the culprits each time being young Arab males.

Air crews and passengers alike are thus prone to jumpiness should a certain template of race and behavior be filled. Jacobsen's folly is in not being able to step back from that jumpiness -- neither during the flight itself, at which point her worry and behavior are at least excusable, nor well after touching down safely. Speaking as a pilot, air travel columnist, and American, I find Jacobsen's 3,000-word ghost story of Arab boogeymen among the most overwrought and inflammatory tracts I've encountered in some time.

Most disturbing of all has been the pickup from Internet bloggers and news sources, including ABC, CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times. The writer hops a flight to California on which absolutely nothing of danger occurs, and the following are among the citations:

"Harrowing piece"
"The frightening true story"
"Disturbing account"
"Riveting article"
"An absolute must-read"

"Read all about the breaking Northwest airlines scare," advertises, suggesting perhaps a narrowly averted crash, a bomb defused during flight or a thwarted skyjacking. Click on over to hear instead about the toilet habits of a group of Syrian minstrels and one middle-aged woman's alarmist reaction to them. No matter; over the past week or so Jacobsen has found herself linked and excerpted in every last crevice of the Web. Those of you not convinced of just how paranoid and xenophobic Americans can be, look no further than the following online posts, which, along with thousands like them, have emerged in direct response to this story:

"You will never, ever, catch me on an airplane again!"

"My advice would be to de-plane as soon as I counted 14 Arabs as passengers. "

"Soon after 9/11 we were in a local McDonald's and a group of Middle Eastern men came in and got carry-out. They sat in their van for a while then headed North. I felt scared out of my wits. I wrote down a description of the vehicle and license, but never did anything with it. Guess next time I won't be so stupid."

Jacobsen spins her experience into a not-so-veiled call for racial profiling of airline passengers. Help me out with this one: If only those musicians had been interrogated prior to boarding, it would have been revealed they were, in fact ... musicians. (They had, of course, endured the same concourse X-ray and metal detector rigmarole as everyone else, and were in possession of valid passports and visas.)

My own feelings on passenger profiling are mixed, and I'm not as liberal on the issue as you might expect. However, I do think singling out a specific ethnicity for extra screening is less a racist idea than a wasteful and ineffective one. Does it not occur to people that Muslim radicals come in all complexions and from many nations -- from the heart of black Africa to the archipelagoes of Southeast Asia? (Many Syrians, no less, are fair-haired and light-skinned.) Does it not occur to people that terrorists are clever, resourceful and, in the end, bound to outwit such obvious snares? The notion that 14 saboteurs, replete with silk-screened track suits effectively advertising themselves as such, would obviously and boisterously proceed in and out of an airplane lavatory, taking turns to construct a bomb, is so over-the-top ludicrous it deserves its own comedy sketch. Indeed, Jacobsen is trying to portray a scene of angst and fear, but she inadvertently scripts out a parody. I half-expected her to tell me that one of the men wore a cardboard sign labeled "TERRORIST."

On Tuesday morning I appeared as a guest on a conservative, drive-time radio show in Philadelphia, and Jacobsen was the hot issue. The host, without much else to go on, proposed the Syrians had choreographed a "dry run" for a future attack. (At one point he referred to the involved carrier, Northwest Airlines, as "Northeastern.") When I dared express doubt, and noted that investigators from the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI had confirmed the men's identities and motives, I was mocked, ridiculed and eventually hung up on. The very suggestion that the men could have been innocent musicians seemed, in the eyes of the host and callers, preposterous. They had to be terrorists. Disagreeing got me called "a frickin' idiot," and a caller demanded to know which airline I worked for so he could be certain never to ride on a plane with a traitor like me at the controls.

Stop the presses: A sequel to "Terror in the Skies, Again?" has now been posted on, in which Jacobsen reinfects the conversation with a fresh dose of mongering. "And I now have another important question," she writes. "Is there a link between my experience ... and the arrest of Ali Mohamed Almosaleh by Customs agents at the Minneapolis Airport on July 7?" Almosaleh, a Syrian, was allegedly carrying a suicide note and "anti-American material."

Jacobsen's hint at conspiracy, however, is based exclusively on the coincidence that Almosaleh and the musicians happen to all be Syrian citizens. I see. That a supposition this groundless and stupid can make it into print and entice the likes of major news networks should outrage any clear-thinking American. How about we seek out all Syrians and put their names on airline blacklists?

Jacobsen's sequel is peppered with incendiary quotes from industry sources. Says an airline pilot: "The terrorists are probing us all the time." Another confides a maddeningly baseless belief that Jacobsen had been "likely on a dry run," while another states, "The incident you wrote about, and incidents like it, occur more than you like to think. It is a 'dirty little secret' that all of us, as crew members, have known about for quite some time."

Which dirty little secret, exactly, are we talking about? That foreigners ride on airplanes?

In a moment of truly ghastly philosophizing, Jacobsen includes a manipulative passage in which she is smitten with anguish as she recollects a photograph taken during the Sept. 11 attacks. She gives us this: "Political correctness has become a major road block for airline safety ... I think about the meaning of 'dry run.' And then I think about what it means to be politically correct. And I keep coming up blank."

So do I.

Aside from matters of politics and general opinion, is Jacobsen playing fast and loose with the facts? There appear to be embellishments in her original tale.

Aboard flight 327, as she, her husband and several passengers and crew are having their nervous breakdowns, comes this instance of B-movie tension: "[The flight attendant] leaned over and quietly told my husband there were federal air marshals sitting all around us. She asked him not to tell anyone and explained that she could be in trouble for giving out that information. She then continued serving drinks."

Are we to believe not only that an airline professional was unwise enough to reveal such a thing, but that a group of marshals -- not one, not two, but several -- having gotten word that a covey of Arabs were flying to LAX, were on hand to trail and observe them? That's some tight logistical planning. Are we following Middle Easterners through airports now? If so, how does that work at Kennedy International, I wonder, where foreign airliners carrying thousands of passengers arrive daily from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE and elsewhere? That's a lot of dry runs, and there's no love lost, after all, between Muslim radicals and the governments who own and operate these airlines -- Pakistan International, Saudi Arabian, EgyptAir, Royal Jordanian, etc. Such subtleties are lost on that segment of the public who'd prefer a more digestible cock-and-bull yarn from high above the American heartland. As for those wacky airlines from abroad, why not simply ban them from American airspace?

Clearly I'm in a fit of envy over Jacobsen's cheap grab at notoriety. I've got a book out and could use some publicity. Here, let me give it a try.

Late last summer I boarded a nonstop flight from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to Newark, N.J. After taking my seat, I noticed that well over a hundred of my fellow passengers looked to be Muslims! Yes, that's the same faith adhered to by those dastardly perpetrators who knocked down our Trade Center and demolished part of the Pentagon. Not only that, but our aircraft, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, was registered and maintained by a company headquartered in a predominantly Muslim nation! What if the cargo holds had been stuffed full of anthrax or TNT by unscrupulous terrorists back in Kuala Lumpur!

Several passengers wore conservative Islamic dress -- men in white dishdashas; women concealed in full black burqa. Our plane contained a Muslim prayer enclave (for possible use by terrorists preparing for the throes of martydrom), and the seatback video displayed a graphic of the qibla, showing real-time distance and heading to Mecca. En route toward New York, dozens of Muslim passengers were seen socializing and using the lavatories, in some cases blatantly ignoring the illuminated seat-belt sign!

To my relief and utter astonishment, we landed safely (and on time).

Jacobsen simmers her own account in gratuitous detail and melodrama. It plays like a Hollywood disaster film -- the young child, the would-be villain who smiles innocently in a moment of spooky foreshadowing. We're waiting for the gunshots, the fireball from the lavatory, the marshals jumping up to yell, "Hit the floor!"

That her story concludes in such a painfully boring anticlimax ought to be the very point, and in the final few pages she still has time for a constructive moral, the clear lesson being not the potentials of global terror, but the dangers of our own preconceptions and imagination. Instead, she pulls a vile U-turn and chooses to bait us with racist innuendo and fearmongering. Nothing happened, but something might have happened, and so it serves us to remain frightened and draconian at all costs, furthering our nation's pathetic embrace of maximum paranoia.

Jacobsen's kicker: "So the question is ... Do I think these men were musicians? I'll let you decide. But I wonder, if 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?"

Excuse me? She concludes, as did the radio host Tuesday morning, by insinuating that the men were terrorists, despite every shred of evidence, not to mention common sense, arguing to the contrary. And with that her article, and her credibility with it, plummets from merely sensationalist to inexcusably offensive.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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