Right Hook

A fear-mongering account of "terror in the skies" sparks right-wing criticism of Homeland Security -- and reignites calls for racial profiling.

Published July 21, 2004 11:29PM (EDT)

Since early last week, the blogosphere has swirled with intrigue over writer Annie Jacobsen's story "Terror in the Skies, Again?" published by the heretofore little-known WomensWallStreet.com (no relation to the Wall Street Journal). Jacobsen reports her chilling experience on a June 29 flight from Detroit to L.A., during which the unusual behavior of 14 Syrian men onboard left her and several other passengers and crew members fearful of an imminent plot to hijack or blow up the plane. When Northwest flight 327 landed safely at LAX, it was greeted by a swarm of police, FBI and other federal officials. The Syrian passengers, purportedly a group of musicians, were detained, questioned and released. No revelations of criminal activity have surfaced. Debate continues over whether Jacobsen witnessed an aborted terror plot, a "dry run" by terrorists in the planning stages -- or whether she has floated a puffed-up, fear-mongering polemic.

Even a number of right-wing bloggers initially expressed skepticism over the story's authenticity. Some wondered about Jacobsen's account of a flight attendant confiding to her and her anxious husband that several federal air marshals were onboard and monitoring the situation closely -- a revelation that would be forbidden by regulations. Others say Jacobsen is just plain wrong in claiming that a federal guideline banning passengers from congregating in airplane aisles was only instituted following the suspicious activity on her June 29 flight.

But since Monday night, after Jacobsen and her husband appeared on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," the story has been gaining credence -- and now has many on the political right pounding the table for increased racial profiling in airports and stronger scrutiny of what they consider a woefully inadequate Homeland Security policy. Blogger Donald Sensing (One Hand Clapping) notes that there's "a lot of disagreement over substantial parts of the bona fides of Annie's piece," but that it's getting a wave of attention with very good reason:

"It wasn't kilt-wearing Scotsmen who committed 9/11's grim deeds ... even if these 14 Arab men were entirely innocuous, on another airliner somewhere, somewhen, [sic] there seem certain to be other Arab men who intend destruction. The enemy is still out there and he still wants to kill us."

Conservative journalist and blogger Michelle Malkin, who was also initially skeptical but did some follow-up reporting of her own, has decided it's time to take a much more hardcore stance on the issue of airline security.

"I believe the Jacobsens. I believe they observed what Annie called 'not normal behavior' by an unusually large group of Arab foreign nationals. I believe they witnessed a dry run for a terrorist attack. I don't believe they were 'paranoid.' I believe they were acting as responsible parents and responsible citizens who take their post-9/11 obligation to remain vigilant at all times dead seriously.

"I will be doing a lot of flying over the next few months, and I will act -- without apology or shame -- as the Jacobsens acted on their flight ... Bottom line: I will not be lulled by the fashionable apathy of the blind. And I will not be cowed by the politically correct protestations of the dumb.

"To those who shrug that 'nothing happened' and that this is 'not news,' I say: Wake the *%&^#@ up and stop acting like 9/10 sheeple. Better a false alarm than a flaming plane."

Part 2: Conservative pilots weigh in
Jacobsen herself published a follow-up piece on Monday that cranks up the fear factor considerably. She included several e-mails she received from airline personnel in response to her initial story that depict an industry, and federal government, in denial.

"Gary Boettcher, Member, Board of Directors, Allied Pilots Association, said, 'Folks, I am a Captain with a major airline. I was very involved with the Arming Pilots effort. Your reprint of this airborne event is not a singular nor isolated experience. The terrorists are probing us all the time.'

"During a later phone conversation I had with Boettcher, he told me that based on his experience, it was his opinion that I was likely on a dry run. He said he's had many of these experiences and so have many of his fellow captains. They've been trying to speak out about this but so far their words have been falling on deaf ears ...

"Rand K. Peck, captain for a major U.S. airline, sent the following email:

"'I'm deeply bothered by the inconsistencies that I observe at [the Transportation Security Administration]. I've observed matronly looking grandmothers, practically disrobed at security check points and five-year-old blonde boys turned inside out, while Middle Eastern males sail through undetained. We have little to fear from grandmothers and little boys. But Middle Eastern males are protected, not by our Constitution, but from our current popular policy of political correctness and a desire to offend no one at any cost, regardless of how many airplanes and bodies litter the landscape. This is my personal opinion, formed by my experiences and observations.'"

An emboldened Jacobsen agreed with Peck that p.c. thinking will only result in terror raining from the skies once again:

"This brings us to the heart of the matter -- political correctness. Political correctness has become a major road block for airline safety. From what I've now learned from the many emails and phone calls that I have had with airline industry personnel, it is political correctness that will eventually cause us to stand there wondering, 'How did we let 9/11 happen again?'"

"'What ifs' won't protect the country"
Blogger Michele Catalano (A Small Victory) is troubled by the renewed fervor for targeting Arab men sparked by Jacobsen's account.

"I don't know what to think. Racial and ethnic profiling makes me uncomfortable. I have too many Arab neighbors to start thinking that every Arab I see is a potential terrorist. Are people, given the abundance of threats hitting the airwaves these days, seeing things that aren't there?

I suppose I should be honest and say the main reason I don't believe this story is because I don't want to believe it. I don't want to think that our national security is at risk because people's suspicions aren't taken seriously or because we have a quota on how many people of a certain nationality we can give the once over. Which all flies directly in the face of my stance against ethnic profiling, I know."

Yet she, too, is ready to err on the side of caution.

"The more I write about [this story] the more I think, why not? They keep saying they're going to do something, why would I think this story is not true?

"Again, I don't want it to be true. The implications are not something I can let my brain chew on right now. Head, meet sand. But what if? What if they were making a dry run? You can't really protect the country by dealing in 'what ifs'. So what's the solution? Or is there one?"

Such concern for civil liberties ultimately "annoys" editor David Horowitz, whose Front Page Magazine has featured both Jacobsen installments. Horowitz offered a like-minded story of his own back in mid-June, in which menacing Arabs looked uncannily like 9/11 hijackers.

"I flew home through Frankfurt and country where Mohammed Atta organized a 9/11 terrorist cell. My flight was to Detroit, a city with the largest Muslim population in the United States. While waiting to board I noticed a group of young ascetic looking Muslim males, two of whom were so similar to Atta in facial expression and general appearance that they could have been his brothers. They didn't appear to be students or have any business purpose (no suits for example) and my first thought, really a question to myself which I know everybody who flies occasionally has the impulse to ask but suppresses was 'Are they going to blow up this flight?' My second thought was why am I jumping to the conclusion that they're terrorists? My third was anger at Mohammed Atta and the Islamo fascists for making this a reasonable fear and at the politically correct for making me feel guilty about having a reasonable fear while paralyzing -- or so I thought -- the security forces that are suposed to protect us by barring them from profiling obvious suspects (even if they should turn out to be innocent on inspection). It was ... annoying to think that thanks to [Transportation Secretary] Norm Minetta our security forces would not be able to scrutinize these guys a little more carefully than say they would scrutinize me."

Daniel Drezner, a political science professor at the Univerity of Chicago, sees a chilling lack of homeland protection -- on a much broader scale. He points to a new book by former Coast Guard commander Stephen Flynn, "America the Vulnerable: How Our Government Is Failing to Protect Us From Terrorism."

"Two months after the September 11th attacks, I heard Stephen Flynn give a talk about homeland security and American vulnerabilities -- and he scared the crap out of me. Listening to Flynn -- a former Coast Guard commander -- describe the various soft spots of America's infrastructure was to realize just how much 9/11 required a rethink of how America defends itself. Flynn wasn't defeatist during his talk, he just laid out what needed to be done. And it was a long list."

Drezner turns to sobering excerpts from Flynn's new book:

"'The U.S. has no rival when it comes to projecting its military, economic and cultural power around the world. But we are practically defenseless at home. In 2002 alone, more than 400 million people, 122 million cars, 11 million trucks, 2.4 million rail freight cars, approximately 8 million maritime containers and 56,596 vessels entered the U.S. at more than 3,700 terminals and 301 ports of entry. In general, frontline agents have only a matter of seconds to make a go/no-go decision on whether to allow entry: 30 seconds for people and one minute for vehicles. And then there are the 7,000 miles of land borders and 95,000 miles of shoreline, which provide ample opportunities to walk, swim or sail into the nation. Official estimates place the number of illegal migrants living in America at 7 million. Given these immense numbers, it is a sense of futility, fueled by the lack of vision about what sensible measures are worth pursuing, that lies at the heart of our national inertia on the homeland-security issue ...

"'From water and food supplies; refineries, energy grids, and pipelines; bridges, tunnels, trains, trucks, and cargo containers; to the cyber backbone that underpins the information age in which we live, the measures we have been cobbling together are hardly fit to deter amateur thieves, vandals, and hackers, never mind determined terrorists. Worse still, small improvements are often oversold as giant steps forward, lowering the guard of average citizens as they carry on their daily routine with an unwarranted sense of confidence.'"

Drezner says the Bush administration's floundering Department of Homeland Security should spell golden political opportunity for John Kerry -- though he finds little comfort in the Democratic presidential candidate's own plan to safeguard the nation.

"If I was John Kerry, I would bash Bush again and again and again on this front. Reviewing the Senator's own proposals, however, I'm thoroughly underwhelmed. There's a recognition of the importance of port security, but nothing else about protecting critical infrastructure (and, it should be noted, port security is actually one of the unheralded initiatives of the current administration). Most of Kerry's proposals focus on emergency response rather than prevention."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2004 Elections 9/11 Terrorism