Terror in the letters pages! Readers respond to Patrick Smith's "The Hysterical Skies."

Published July 23, 2004 9:08PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

Annie Jacobsen wasn't the only passenger on that flight to feel those completely valid quakes of suspicion and fear, not to mention the alarm that the most basic and sane security measures were allowed to go so wrong.

After all, sitting near her were up to 14 passengers who looked at her and, with equally valid worry in their guts over well-documented events, wondered when she was going to clamp electrodes to their testicles and place dog leashes around their necks. No wonder they had to go to the toilet so often!

-- Mark Bourne

I would like to thank Patrick Smith for this article. I have been following this story on the Web and dreading its impending explosion in the mainstream media. In Jacobsen's second installment of "Terror in the Skies, Again?" she ends with a criticism of so-called political correctness as an obstacle to combatting terrorism. Upholding our Constitution's 14th Amendment is not politically correct, it is absolutely legally mandated. It is not a rule that can be bent during heightened times of crisis. It is during these critical times that we as a nation must vigorously defend and uphold the Constitution. We do not have to choose between fighting terrorism and upholding civil liberties. If security in airports is not strict enough, then increase scrutiny of everyone, not just a certain subset of the flying population. This does not offend the 14th Amendment.

-- Jennifer Hughes

I could easily go on about how disgusted I feel about the paranoid fantasy concocted by the woman featured in the article "The Hysterical Skies," but I won't dwell on the bigotry and instead will relate my own story.

I was spending the summer in North Cyprus with my future husband. Our apartment overlooked the largest portion of the U.N.'s no man's land, a two-mile stretch of coastal resort town completely abandoned, marking the boundary between the Greek and Turkish sides of Cyprus. From our window you could see the rather disturbing site of a partially bombed building, gaping open and sagging down. While there had been no overt hostilities for years in Famagusta it could be unnerving to know you lived so close to contested lands.

We went out to lunch every day and often shared the restaurant with U.N. peacekeeping troops, though I never saw them do anything but laugh and drink beer. The atmosphere was never sinister, but being a U.S. citizen I was not used to seeing such a military presence about. It all occasionally put me on edge and made me question the sensibility of being there.

One evening we attended a concert of a Turkish group named Yeni Turku. The group provided a soundtrack for our courtship and seeing them was something special. The concert was set up on a little stage in the heart of the small walled city portion. The little stage was sandwiched between a gothic cathedral turned mosque, a random Roman sarcophagus and some remains of a medieval jail. All very scenic.

The little square was jampacked with college students. The Eastern Mediterranean University is just down the road. My husband often complained that North Cyprus is where the rich people sent their stupid children to school. Turkey has a very highly competitive university system. Essentially these were the kids that couldn't cut it in Turkey but their parents had enough money to send them abroad. The town is also directly on the water so it was the idle rich beach scene.

We squeezed into the throng of drunken college students and managed to get a seat almost behind the stage. As I sat there and watched the crowd this one young man caught my attention. He was dressed in a long white robe and a ghutra. It was very strange to see a college-age kid dressed in traditional Muslim dress. It was unheard of in this little community of Westernized punks, actually. I'm not sure how it is in Eastern Turkey, which is far more fundamentalist, but in the western Turkish cities of Istanbul and Izmir you never saw people in Arab dress despite it being a Muslim country. Turks are very proud of being Turkish not Arabic.

Besides the odd dress this guy was acting very strangely. He was hanging out around the back of the stage near us and he kept fiddling under his robe. I kept seeing him put his hands under his outfit and adjust this odd-shaped lump. When he removed his hands I tried to figure out what the strange bulge beneath his robe was. Of course my mind starts flashing to the image of a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to him under the loose-fitting outfit. Or maybe it was a concealed weapon of some kind? Suddenly this tightly packed crowd seemed at risk to me. I keep watching the man unsure of what to do, but I didn't say anything in fear of looking foolish.

So nervously I watched this man putting his hands in and out of his robe, shifting something and just lurching around very oddly. I'm not hearing the music anymore and my entire body is tense. Suddenly he reaches into his robe and starts pulling something out. I grab my future husband's hand suddenly ready to drag him to the ground when I duck for cover and in slow motion I watch him pull out... a beer.

Yes, he pulled a beer out from his robe and took a long drink. He was yet another drunken college kid just lurching around at the concert. Then with the exaggerated care of someone who is completely drunk he stuffed it back under the white flowing robe.

That experience taught me a very valuable lesson. I learned that my racial stereotypes are absurd and flawed, but the stereotype of college students is the same the world over.

-- Amanda Speight

I found Patrick Smith's laissez-faire attitude toward this incident and Ms. Jacobsen's description of it absolutely infuriating. Note I wrote "this incident." I, like Mr. Smith, have no problem traveling with anyone, be they Muslim or Martian. But when people behave as those did on Mrs. Jacobsen's cross-country flight, especially in light of 9/11, I would likewise be very suspicious. Any sane person would.

If we can safely assume that Mrs. Jacobsen is being truthful, then what in the hell explains such behavior? Why the stone-faced frown from the previously kind-faced man? What was, or was not, in that McDonald's bag? Why the seeming signal with the mouthed word "no"?

More important, why didn't Mr. Smith engage Mrs. Jacobsen's primary questions, such as did anyone follow up to see if these guys actually performed somewhere before returning to Syria after one day? And then there's this:

"Jacobsen's hint at conspiracy, however, is based exclusively on the coincidence that Almosaleh and the musicians happen to all be Syrian citizens."

This is a flat lie, cleverly hidden by the order in which Smith addresses Jacobsen's points. According to Gary Boettcher, who spoke on the record, the "terrorists are probing us all the time." Of that I have no doubt, but apparently Smith does and that's frightening considering that he is a pilot for a major airline.

I am no more comfortable with profiling than the next person, but I've been on a few long flights myself, and what Jacobsen described was downright weird if not terrifying. If it had been a group of lily-white, Swedish hockey players it would have been just as suspicious. It is indeed time to get extreme political correctness out of the air.

-- Rob Anderson

If during their "extensive deliberations," the editors of WomensWallStreet.com had vetted their story with someone possessing a passing knowledge of Islam, they would surely have learned a couple of well-known habits of Muslims that explain the behavior during the Northwest Airlines flight quite innocuously.

1) Ms. Jacobsen and her husband became anxious when the Muslim men "made eye contact" with each other, even though the men didn't arrive together.

That's not sinister, it's expected.

Fellow Muslims are to be considered brothers and sisters, and when one meets any other, even a stranger, one is expected to greet him and wish him peace -- "As-salaam alaikum."

2) Apparently many of the passengers were frightened when the men went to the bathroom one after another. This is easily explained in a terrorist-free way, as well.

Muslims perform ablutions before praying -- one simply goes to the bathroom to wash. Muslims pray five times a day. I've taken the Northwest Detroit-L.A. flight many times, and it's nearly five hours long. Undoubtedly one of the daily prayer times fell during the flight. Most likely, the men all reminded each other that it was time to pray.

These men had no criminal records and there was no other reason to suspect them of any criminal intent. With just a bit more knowledge, Ms. Jacobsen would have had a much more comfortable flight and might not have instigated this outrageous wave of fear and intolerance.

-- Laura Grego

I was forwarded the link to the "WomensWallStreet" article last Friday. It took me to the end of the first line of Jacobsen's text to spot the major fallacy of her writing. She was flying out of Detroit. Metro Detroit, and in particular the Dearborn suburb where I live, has one of the highest concentrations of Arabic peoples in the world outside of the Middle East.

If I was on a full flight out of DTW and didn't have at least 14 Arabic-looking folks among me onboard, I'd wonder what was wrong.

-- Michael Morris

Patrick Smith's measured account of how one hysterical passenger can concoct and sell to the media alleged terrorist activities in flight was a relief to read. He was able to effectively blend exposition of her foolishness and the willingness of equally foolish media in giving credit to such false alarms.

Smith's reasons for questioning our current transportation passenger safety Byzantine bureaucracy presented a voice of moderation that has been drowned out by those bent on stopping any terrorism. Of course, we can no more prevent all terrorism anymore than we can intercept all illegal drugs.

We should avoid the temptation to create such a costly bureaucracy which protects no one, ensures that airlines will continue to lose money and lulls us into a false sense of security.

-- Christopher R. Barry

Bravo, Patrick Smith! While I am all about being conscious of my surroundings, plummeting into hysterical racism is simply inconceivable. I can picture the Syrian musicians watching the entire plane wig out, Annie and her husband included ... no wonder the new friend in the yellow T-shirt presented her with a stone face when she smiled at him. In reality, her "friendliest smile" must have looked like a petrified rictus. These men, all cleared by Customs and granted permission to board, spent 4.5 hours of their lives on an airbus full of freaks. Welcome to America. The old adage is still true in 2004: there's always a handful of people to screw things up for everyone.

-- Denise Baiki

Is it possible that you are missing the point of this article? To me, Ms. Jacobsen's point is pretty clear. The threat of terrorism on airplanes is still real, and a clear and present danger. Her view that she was onboard a flight with potential terrorists shouldn't put her in your cross hairs for ridicule. I'll bet that you'd have been extremely concerned for your own safety as well if you had been on that flight. I consider myself a patriotic American, and I'd like to think that I would have tried to behave like the heroes on the hijacked plane that crashed in the field. However, even reading this story chilled me. What could I have done?

Your theory that this was all coincidence seems less plausible to me than Ms. Jacobsen's theory that she was on a dry run. Additionally, your comparison of flying onboard a plane from Dubai is ludicrous. There is no comparison. Do you suppose that the federal marshals that were quoted in her story are looking for coverage? To see their names in print? Come on, you must see this as what it was, a possible potential act of terrorism in what has to be a primary target in the minds of terrorists. This is scary, and people should be scared. In this case, it is not racist or reactionary. Ms. Jacobsen deserves laud for writing this, not ridicule.

While I certainly think that creating undue fear and paranoia is counterproductive, it is not as bad as turning a blind eye to (even the possibility of) real danger. Ask yourself, which point of view you'd lean toward: being highly suspect with a higher probability of safety, or assuming that all is safe with a higher probability of disaster? After the horrible (avoidable) catastrophe of 9/11, I'd rather err on the side with the higher probability of safety.

-- Michael Andrews

Jacobsen is clearly mad, and while she is not alone, I recently had a much better experience traveling throughout the U.S. with a group of mostly Arab journalists from Dubai. While several of the journalists recounted stories of multiple security checks and suspicious questions from airport authorities in other countries, our trek through several U.S. airports was uneventful, and I was happy to see that my Dubai companions were subjected to no extra security screening than myself (a blond and blue-eyed Californian).

These people couldn't be farther from terrorists, but under Jacobsen's paranoid eye, they might as well be. It is so frustrating that some Americans cannot acknowledge their fears of terrorism, while not allowing that fear to spill over into prejudice and paranoia. They make life miserable for themselves, with their fear and anger, and they make life much harder for the people they fear. Did I mention that one of these journalists was the first on the ground in Iraq when U.S. bombs fell, and another was a CNN correspondent? I'm very, very glad they weren't subjected to Jacobsen's simplistic and unreasonable tirade.

-- Andrew Keown

I'm very disappointed with Patrick Smith's article about Ann Jacobsen's experience on her Northwest Airlines flight.

Smith's article strikes me as far more hysterical than Jacobsen's. He constantly exaggerates and misinterprets what she says. Further, he minimizes the fact that the airline's crew -- flight attendants, pilots and air marshals -- were also concerned about the situation, as well as the fact that the FBI and TSA spent hours questioning passengers when the flight landed.

He completely ignores Jacobsen's statements about the "musicians" ignoring the "fasten seat belts" signs. He ignores the point that no one, so far as I can tell, has found any record of this musical group except for this flight.

I have no idea whether Jacobsen's suspicions are correct, but dismissing them out of hand as Smith does is just as prejudiced as anything he attributes to her.

-- Tom Anderson

First, doesn't anyone ever remember that no amount of racial profiling would have prevented the Oklahoma City bombing?

Second, I am a little worried that on my next trip, someone like Ms Jacobsen will be sitting in the aisle seat beside me. After all, as a result of my battle against in-flight dehydration, I probably get up to go to the loo about 10 times during a six-hour flight. I never thought that there could be more dire consequences to this irritating habit than annoying the heck out of my seat neighbor. Next time, she or he might actually report me and demand that I be thrown out of the plane without a parachute, in the name of public safety!

-- Ines Holzbaur

This is hilarious. What kind of moron uses the best-case scenario (Arabic men not doing anything wrong) to justify racial profiling?

I understand the unease she felt; fear is not rational. But after fear gives way to reason (perhaps at the end of an uneventful flight), the rational response is usually, "Oops! False alarm," and let it go. Instead, she brewed up an entire article trying to justify what turned out to be a groundless fear. Is it too late to add rationalizing as an Olympic sport? Because we've got a surefire gold medallist ready to deploy. We'll just have to get her a charter flight to Greece.

-- David Good

Patrick Smith's story nails the current racism-disguised-as-caution attitude that most media channels seem to avoid touching on. I nearly laughed at "My advice would be to deplane as soon as I counted 14 Arabs as passengers." Anyone following that sort of thinking should also run away anytime they see two white guys in a Ryder truck since that certain template of race and behavior has proven to result in terrorist acts. While I understand that people may feel the need to cautiously observe their surroundings and take note of "suspicious" behavior, people like Annie Jacobsen and, more important, the media channels opting to disseminate their views, should practice more restraint in flaming the fires of paranoia and, essentially, racism.

-- Ernesto Perez

I've just read Patrick Smith's "The Hysterical Skies," the story of Annie Jacobsen's subjectively horrific ordeal flying from Detroit to L.A. with a group of Syrian musicians.

Having finished Mr. Smith's article, I took the time to look up Ms. Jacobsen's article and scanned its eight pages. I was amused, but not entirely surprised to find that one of her research citations was an article by Ann Coulter detailing Norm Mineta's orders forbidding racial profiling of Arab men. In the quote, Ms. Coulter casts that practice as the one thing that could have prevented the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Ya think?

That Ann Coulter is the best that Ms. Jacobsen can muster for a primary resource regarding airline safety speaks volumes.

I've been waiting since the early '90s to see the crest and waning of the xenophobic pseudo-conservatism of which Ms. Coulter and apparently Ms. Jacobsen are representative. I'm afraid we aren't even close yet. God help us.

-- Howard West

When will people like Patrick Smith get it?

There are no Arab "musicians." There also are no Arab businessmen. There are no Arab families going to visit relatives in other states. There aren't even any Arab children. Especially not on American airplanes.

Don't be fooled. Those Arab-looking "children" are really midget terrorists who have been trained in remote mountain camps to act like Arab children.

It's possible that on the ground in America some Arabs are really just Arabs, going about their daily lives without planning to blow anybody up, but I doubt it. On an airplane, however, every Arab is clearly a terrorist, or at the very least a terrorist-in-training on a dry run.

We clearly won't be safe in the skies until we come to that sobering realization.

I suppose the next step would be to ban all Arabs from flying on American airplanes. Or if that seems too extreme, maybe we can just prohibit Arabs from standing up and stretching their legs, socializing, or using the restrooms on an airplane.

No, wait, I know! Since we have now established way beyond a reasonable doubt that all Arabs who fly are terrorists, and we are at war with terrorists, why can't we just round up all the Arabs in America who try to purchase a plane ticket, and put them in those nifty camps we built for the Japanese during World War II? Just until the war on terror is over, and we have won it, of course.

I would just feel so much safer and better about this whole terrorist thing. Wouldn't you?

-- C. Bondy

I can't say that, in a situation similar to Annie Jacobsen's, I wouldn't be a little nervous. I fly often, and I do get nervous when people, regardless of skin color, act suspiciously on flights I am on. However, for her to carry on in such a manner after she had safely reached the tarmac and the men had been checked and cleared by the authorities is a little ridiculous. I'm thankful that someone other than myself has recognized how hysterical and silly Ms. Jacobsen's article was. It's fine to be nervous, but rationality would have told her, and the flight attendants, that terrorists would hardly be so obvious, even on a dry run.

Still, the thing that struck me as the funniest in her original article, and something that I was surprised Mr. Smith didn't catch, was her ominous "Two days later they were scheduled to fly back on JetBlue from Long Beach, California to New York -- also using one-way tickets." As a loyal JetBlue customer, I happen to know that they only sell one-way tickets. Perhaps if Ms. Jacobsen's online research had included credible sources rather than Ann Coulter, she would have realized that.

The men were acting suspiciously, but for her to continue her one-woman crusade against them after nothing happened smacks of racism and intolerance. Particularly since the proper authorities have taken the proper steps to investigate these men and found nothing, and especially in light of the article she referenced that the musicians were having trouble finding seats together.

-- Kyla Cathey

Thank you for responding to Ms. Jacobsen's appallingly racist story. As an Arab-American woman who worries about the treatment of her male relatives, I appreciate anyone who outs hysteria-driven racism. Such efforts are necessary in the fight to stop such sentiments from becoming accepted in our society.

-- Lemise Rory

Bless you, Salon, for being this haven of sanity amid the stupidity. Today's column by Patrick Smith was intelligently written, funny, insightful ... and ultimately? Very scary.

What a perfect example of the kind of reactive, prejudiced insanity that seems to be daily getting more and more of a polarizing grip on this country.

Thank you, Patrick, for writing the column and exposing this for what it was -- thank you, Salon, for being here to publish it.

-- Susan Terrell

It is your credibility, Mr. Smith, that plummets (!) with the publication of your outraged diatribe against the Annie Jacobsen articles. Why are you so upset? Perhaps you are a seasoned pilot with a cockpit-thickened hide, and you are accustomed to the experiences described by Jacobsen. I, however, am not. I would have been terrified. Rational or not. In as much as her story was anticlimactic, she drew a few conclusions that may or may not have been correct, but were certainly warranted by the behavior she observed. Apparently the FBI, the LAPD, the FAM and the TSA thought so too. And you provide no confirmation that her fears were unfounded. Really, all we know is that This Time, if it was a "dry run," insufficient evidence existed to further detain the men. Hmmm. Those terrorists are clever men. Or maybe they were simply musicians. But you, sir, simply do not know which.

Yours is the writing that reads: Hysterical.

-- Melanie Smith

In response to the issue of racially profiling males of Middle Eastern descent, the one thing I never see in discussions of this issue is, would it even work? The same thing happens when any argument weighing civil liberties and security comes up. I just don't believe we need to give up ANY civil liberties to be more secure - or at least, so few liberties as to make the current discussions overblown.

Let's take the issue of racial profiling. Certainly, if a group of Middle Eastern men act suspiciously on a flight, then they should be investigated. Let me rephrase that sentence. If a group of white men with shaved heads acts suspiciously on a flight, then they should be investigated. Let me rephrase that once more. If a group of white men wearing crosses acts suspiciously near an abortion clinic, they should be investigated. None of these cases is racial profiling.

On the other hand, suppose we did embark on a program of racially profiling Arab men. (That sentence seems absurd to me because, well, we have.) A broad dragnet seems too blunt an instrument to actually catch anyone, and it alienates the community that stands to provide the most protection to the U.S. -- namely, the Arab-American community itself. Who better to police Middle Eastern men than, well, Middle Easterners? Many in the Arab-American community did step forward after 9/11 offering help to the government, but most were persecuted as a result.

Racial profiling is also exceedingly inefficient because suspicion breeds suspicion. What I mean is that if there is an official policy that Arab men are automatically under a cloud, then that clouds the judgment of law enforcement -- innocuous acts become terrible in the minds of the police. One need only consider the case of the two men arrested for playing paintball. Paintball! That's what passes for probable cause these days?

So, in my view, racial profiling is not a practical solution at all.

-- Shahed Shari

I feel the need to make clear that the reason racial profiling isn't right isn't because the government doesn't want to hurt anybody's feelings. It's because it's illegal and immoral to initiate government policy based on race or ethnicity.

I also feel the need to ask where were the profiles of shaved-head white guys from Oklahoma after the Oklahoma City bombing? Do suburban police departments keep lists of neglected and disturbed young white boys after Columbine?

Profiling Arabs and Muslims on planes is the same thing as interning Japanese and Italians but not Germans during World War II. I would have felt afraid on a flight where I thought that a group of Arab men were acting "suspicious," but that still would not make me believe it's ever OK to profile fliers based on their race or ethnicity.

I am black. I've been watched in stores and had white women pull their purses a little closer to them when I walk by. I've walked into my new workplace and had a white secretary nearly jump out of her skin when I walked in the door. Fine. Let people think and feel about me whatever they want, but fear and bigotry can't be sanctioned by the state. It just can't.

-- Carleen Brice

Reading Jacobsen's account in her article, I can't say that I would not have also been terrified. It sounds as if these men were acting suspiciously. At least there was enough weirdness to make the ordinary occurrence of standing around talking and going to the bathroom seem dubious. On top of that, if the FBI shows up and questions you upon landing, wouldn't you feel like your fears may have been valid? I felt as though Mr. Smith didn't give credence to her fear.

What I don't buy is the hype about lack of action on the part of government and law enforcement. Jacobsen implies that the men were never screened, which obviously they were (and probably more thoroughly than most). What is also obvious is that the flight crew was aware of the situation and took what action it could by notifying the authorities.

I guess what is at issue is really her conclusion: That these men were certainly terrorists after all and law enforcement failed by not arresting them and sending them to Guantanamo based on the fact that they were Arabs and they scared her. I actually think that the situation was handled well by everyone but Jacobsen, her editors and the rest of the sensationalist, fear-mongering press.

-- Diane Redmond

Patrick Smith raises some depressing observations that are as current as the post-9/11 era and as old as time. About 15 years ago I read "The Choking Doberman," which dissects the origins and themes of urban legends, many of which trace back hundreds of years and which evolve to fit contemporary culture. Jacobsen's tale follows a similar story arc, one that usually includes racial distinctions (dark=bad, white=victim), hideous fear and the universal sense that it could happen to anyone. Perhaps what's most sad, however, is that such stories play well into the psychology of the ignorant, people who have had limited exposure to other cultures and ethnicities -- a good chunk of America, given our geographical distance from most of the world and our dominance of popular culture. It also explains how so many people readily accepted that Iraq/Saddam Hussein were basically one and the same with al-Qaida/Osama bin Laden. Blurred generalizations are just easier than taking the time to look at a map, study a culture and, God forbid, make friends with a Muslim. Instead, we have biased media and political opportunists who choose to perpetuate such ignorance and cut off all opportunity for finding true solutions to terrorism.

-- Russ Klettke

I do not fault Jacobsen for the fright she felt during her experience on the plane. Any of us, watching what she saw, could have easily let our imaginations run away. What I do fault is her conclusions.

Her article could have been an excellent, thoughtful piece warning of the dangers of overactive imaginations. Jacobsen could have written a valuable piece warning us that in times of terror, we must not be terrified by our own imaginations.

All that would have been needed is trimming of the ending and replacing it with a paragraph containing something like this: "I've learned that my own imagination can exaggerate and frighten me more than any real terror out there. I've learned that the threat of terrorism requires that we remain vigilant, not hysterical. And by the way ... the Middle Eastern men on the plane turned out not to be terrorists but musicians."

-- Michele Deniken

Gee whiz! What an extraordinary article! I can't believe that Jacobson's editor allowed her blatant piece of fear-mongering prose to go to print. I am half Iranian and was born in the U.K. Does that mean that next time I visit the U.S.A. I may be barred from entering the country or worse still, prohibited from using the on-flight lavatory? Foreign journalists are already finding it more and more difficult to enter the U.S.A., and many Arab visitors have been detained, deported and even arrested for no good reason. All because some jumped-up little Nazi airport employee has been brainwashed into believing that every Muslim is a potential suicide bomber. I strongly believe that these alarming steps are taking America closer and closer to a Fascist state. This leaves me with the question, do most Americans really know what freedom is?

-- Jerome Mazandarani

I had the harrowing experience of sitting in front of, that's right, a racist white woman on the airplane! Not content to mumble to herself in terror or compose an Internet screed for whoever is in her address book, she instead called over a flight attendant to report her suspicions! The dastardly crime she had witnessed? A woman wearing a Muslim head scarf! No telling what might be under there. The flight attendant, to her infinite credit, informed her that no, there were no screening procedures for such passengers. Yet.

-- Jesse Bacon

Smith makes a good point and I agree with him nearly completely. The author who encountered 14 Syrian musicians on her flight and wrote an inflammatory article about her harrowing experience, implicating the Syrians as terrorists, was way out of line. However, Smith lost me in just one phrase, when he referred to the author as "a middle-aged woman," himself implying that that was reason enough to suspect her perceptions, regardless of what she might say. He could have left the misogyny out and made the same point: her reaction was xenophobic and irrational. "Middle-aged women=hysterical dingbats" is as facile an equation as "Turban-wearing Arabs=terrorists."

-- Allison Lengyel

I'm sure you're getting a lot of e-mail about this piece. Let me start by saying I really enjoy your column every week, and have even forwarded it on to friends on occasion. This time, however, I think your criticism of Annie Jacobsen's account of her experience on NWA is at times even more alarmist than the event itself. And you critique her "kindergarten" writing style? Come on. It sounds like you're making a case against her, not against what she claims happened.

It's always difficult to ascertain the facts of a situation when you only see one side, granted. Maybe these guys were offering their prayer toward Mecca at the back of the plane? Who knows. What is certain is that this experience clearly frightened her, and the fact that she doesn't provide any answers to what really happened, or is unable to get those answers, is when this becomes alarmist, and we all know that the media loves that. I agree that her political wrangling at the end is unnecessary, but frankly, yours is much worse.

Please don't stop, though; you may irritate me this time but I will still keep reading.

-- Brennan Pardee

I read Annie Jacobsen's account, and as a musician who has spent a lot of time on planes with bands ranging in size from four to 20 pieces, I'd like to share my reaction. As I read the story I began chuckling, then proceeded to laugh hysterically. The behavior of the Syrian musicians sounds like every band I've ever traveled with. We check in together, but board separately, nod to each other as we pass (or not), interact with other passengers (or not), congregate in the aisles, visit the bathroom a lot, etc.

Do they have any recordings available?

-- John Mulkerin

I have just finished reading "The Hysterical Skies." I also followed the link to the original article by Annie Jacobsen about her harrowing encounter with Syrian musicians. I have to say that having read both, I feel that you are dismissing Ms. Jacobsen's fears too easily. I think that it is high time that the FBI put out an alert about Middle Eastern men seeking music lessons. Especially if they are interested in learning only the middle movements of a symphony, but not the beginning or end.

-- Stephen Perpitch-Harvey

Wait, don't tell me: Those 14 Syrian musicians turned out to be Linda Ronstadt's band!

-- Lisa Jones

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------