Conspiracy Theory and Annie Jacobsen

Feedback to my analysis of the Annie Jacobsen/flight 327 affair has been overwhelmingly positive. Of the hundreds of letters I’ve received, roughly ninety percent have been supportive. Here’s hoping that testifies to the sensible thinking of Americans in general, as much as to the eagerly analytical minds of Salon subscribers (read: elitist Democrats).

Dissent has arrived in two camps. A few of you who took me to task did so intelligently, patiently, and respectfully. My gratitude to Tom Izzo, Ken Potter, Rebecca Matthews, and several others (you know who you are), for your constructive and engaging critiques. Unfortunately, the bulk of disagreements have come in the form of pugnacious little email bombs — rude, obscene, flippant letters that can’t be bothered to address a specific point. These are easy to spot since their subject lines typically include some combination of the words “pussy,” “loser,” “idiot,” or, most caustic of all, “Liberal.” Begins one letter: “You might be a pilot, but your [sic] also an idiot.” Usually these notes are unsigned, and rarely longer than three or four lines. To a few – call me crazy — I took the effort of a pointed reply, but not once did the writer respond a second time or elaborate on his or her disappointment with my views.

“Dear Patty, I just read your article on Annie Jacobsen. I find it hard to believe you’re a pilot given your cavalier attitude toward terrorism. Thanks, JH”

I’d hardly describe my take on terrorism to be “cavalier.” To the contrary I find the incendiary scare mongering of Jacobsen, et al, to be reckless and destructive. I can’t afford to be cavalier. The fallout of September 11th cost me my job, and effectively ruined a career I spent decades attempting to establish.

This how-can-you-be-a-pilot bit is something I keep running into. During my appearance with Michael Smerconish, the Conservative talk-show host out of Philadelphia, he posed to his listeners: “Can you believe this guy? And he’s a pilot! That is scary.”

Pilots, in the opinions of those who transact in fear and hysterics, are consigned to play the part of red-meat nationalist — eager to kick ass, take no prisoners, and hoist the Stars and Stripes over whatever inflammatory rhetoric happens to be cast about. Take a skeptical view, and you’re “a pussy,” if not a traitor. To those who insist on tying in ideology with FAA flight credentials, please extend the offer to thousands of other pilots, including those quoted in part two of my Jacobsen rebuttal, one of whom was a friend and US Navy squadron mate of Tom McGuinness, the copilot of American Airlines flight 11. And consider this, from pilot Don Wright, retired from Pan Am and Delta:

“Last week my adult daughter announced she is terrified of flying. Reason: That idiotic piece about the Syrians. We’ve put the hysterics in charge. Last year the airlines killed exactly zero passengers while auto accidents did in about 40 thousand. I’m sure a number of those killed on highways would have been safely aboard airplanes if it weren’t for people like Annie Jacobsen.”

More than it hurts my feelings, the juvenile harshness I’ve encountered serves to underscore the strange way in which the story of flight 327 has been so acutely politicized.

As Annie and her story made the rounds of electronic and broadcast media, I started to feel like I was typing into a void. At long last, other voices have begun scrutinizing the matter more carefully. Congratulations to Time magazine for featuring an exclusive interview with one of the Federal Air Marshals aboard flight 327, who coolly and succinctly dismantled most of Jacobsen’s histrionic fantasy. Then again, to quote one of my home town’s more popular drive-time radio blabbermouths, Time is “just another Liberal rag.”

Frances Volpe writes for The Sentinel, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Along with yours truly he was one of the few people to pen a less than gullible take of “Terror in the Skies Again?” Several days after his article ran, Volpe received an email from something called the Federal Air Marshal Association (FAMA). Assuming it was a legitimate dispatch from a government agency, Volpe clicked open the letter. It read:

“You might want to read this about the ‘innocent‘ 14 Syrian musicians and their leader, who were on NW Flight 327.
Federal Air Marshal Association
Media Relations Department”

The link carries you to the lyrics of “Mother of a Martyr,” a song authored by Nour Mehana, the so-called “Syrian Wayne Newton” who the flight 327 musicians were en route to play backup for. Several things here: For one, Nour Mehana was not on the airplane. Secondly, presenting song lyrics as circumstantial evidence of some vaguely defined wrongdoing opens quite the can of worms. (Never mind that “Mother of a Martyr” is about Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel, and that the official Palestinian policy, what exists of it, does not actively target Americans.) We look forward to FAMA’s advocating that rapper Ice-T be kept off airplanes because of his song “Cop Killer” and that Eric Clapton be grounded for “I Shot the Sheriff.”

I found it discomforting that representatives of a law enforcement body, entrusted with the lives and security of all Americans, are going around sending snippy, unsigned emails to bolster a controversial cause, particularly when the Department of Homeland Security, under whose authority the Federal Air Marshals safeguard our skies, openly disputes any speculation that terrorists were aboard flight 327.

Pay a visit to the FAMA Website, however, and things drop into place. FAMA is not, in fact, a government-sanctioned entity. Rather, it’s a spinoff comprised of apparently disenchanted members of the official Federal Air Marshals Service, or FAMS. Air Marshals with an agenda, you might say, operating as something between a labor union and a propaganda machine. Their choice of name and acronym lends itself nicely to quotes or sound bites. Indeed, several media accounts discussing Annie Jacobsen include statements from FAMA, ostensibly speaking on the government’s behalf.

There’s a creepy, artful convolution to the organization’s press releases, which sound like a mix between Big Brother and Yogi Berra. “For immediate release,” begins a dispatch. “[FAMA] announced today that additional evidence now exists confirming the possible existence of terrorist dry runs and probes on commercial passenger flights.”

What is that evidence? How about, “A man on a recent flight,” and a pair of anonymous testimonials from flight 327 that presumably (we don’t know because no details are given) buttress Annie Jacobsen’s. These have “confirmed the original incident as a possible dry run or probe.”

Oh.

One notably crude touch is the home page graphic of the KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) DC-10. They’ve airbrushed out the tail design, but you can still see the carrier’s logo on the engine cowls. Elsewhere we find images of a hooded Marshal crouched behind an airplane seat, taking aim at, we figure, a terrorist strapped with dynamite, or possibly a Syrian oud player. A little too much swagger for comfort. Through its scratch and grain, the page looks, and I really hate to say this, like one of those al-Qaeda recruitment videos we’ve seen on TV. Instead of bearded jihadis bayoneting effigies of George Bush, we see pictures of trigger-happy Marshals antsy for the next take-down at 37,000 feet.

Doubtless somebody will rip the above from context and claim that I “compared Federal Air Marshals to terrorists.” And maybe I’ll get a letter or two reminding me that I won’t be saying these things “when one of our men is up there saving your pathetic Liberal ass.” I can’t quote FAMA directly since none of my phone calls or emails were returned.

Air Marshals could and should portray themselves any number of ways: highly trained, competent, vigilant. Two things they should not be are politically partisan and confrontational. FAMA looks to be both, and the Department of Homeland Security should be alarmed and ashamed that some of its members have taken up like a renegade militia, purposely obfuscating the identity of a government office while openly contradicting its statements. I can think of nothing less professional. Who would you rather have aboard your plane, an unarmed Arab musician flying to a concert, or one of these reactionary zealots packing heat?

FAMA harps heavily on the dry run theory despite contrary assertions from its bosses. “There is no specific intelligence that terrorists are conducting test flights or surveillance activities on US airliners. Period.” That’s not from National Public Radio, the New York Times, or al-Jazeera. Those are the words of David Adams, spokesperson for the Federal Air Marshals Service in Washington, DC.

Adams is concerned about FAMA’s influence and media appearances, but won’t tip his hand as to how or whether his bureau will address the matter. He says of FAMA’s Executive Director, Bob Flamm, “He is not a Federal Air Marshal. And, honestly, I don’t know for sure who he is or what he represents. FAMA’s assertions are not borne out by facts, and the group is not sanctioned by the office of the Federal Air Marshals Service or our workforce.”

I wonder what FAMA thinks of the Marshal’s comments in Time magazine. Annie Jacobsen disputes the officer’s account and has reportedly called him a liar.

Word has it that Annie has hired a publicist to handle her bookings. In the mean time, the more she discredits and rejects nearly everything set before her by the TSA, FBI, FAMS and DHS, the more we have to ask: just what, exactly, do she and her allies want? Is that question even answerable? Here are the feelings of Stanley J. Alluisi, a professor from the Aviation Sciences Institute at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

“One of my biggest problems with Ms. Jacobsen is her implicit and explicit insistence that ‘something should have been done.’ The ‘so called musicians’ should have been arrested, deported, or possibly sent to Guantanamo Bay. For what? Being Syrian?

Her ‘logic’ that the Syrians were terrorists on a dry run is similar to the arguments put forward by those claiming psychic or magical powers. “First, they demand that you prove their extraordinary claims are false, turning the evidentiary requirements on their head. And if you would just look closer and closer, you will eventually find the proof! The truth is out there.

“Jacobsen says, ‘I saw what I saw’ and ‘Those men were up to something and I cannot believe otherwise.’ Therefore, no amount of investigation will be sufficient if it does not dig deep enough to “prove” the fourteen Syrians were terrorists. Nothing short of their signed confessions, or their actually participating in a terror attack could satisfy her since she ‘cannot believe otherwise.’ This is religion, not logic.”

Conspiracy myths, if that’s the appropriate term for all that has emerged from flight 327, come of all colors, sizes, and political affiliations. I’m hoping at least a few of you remember my take on the Paul Wellstone crash a couple of years ago, when members of the fringe Left were peddling grassy-knoll theories that Republican operatives had bombed Wellstone’s twin-engine Beechcraft out of the sky.

Now it’s the other side’s turn, and this time the stakes are much higher.

The Right has spun the Annie Jacobsen psychodrama into a clash of ideologies. On one hand this is hardly surprising, yet at the same time I’m baffled — and creeped out — by the weight of people’s investment in the idea of terrorists working among us. What does a group like FAMA stand to gain? Merely a justification for their existence and continued “business,” or does a ceaseless pretext of us-versus-them hostilities pander to baser instincts — those that hunger for conflict and power?

It’s a familiar story, whereby hard-line Conservatives claim deed over all things virtuous, patriotic, and strong, casting aside all who disagree as traitorous, co-conspiring Liberals whose opinions ensure nothing short of rampant destruction and the collapse of society. This is not only distasteful, but dangerously counterproductive. The security of the skies is being hijacked, if I may, by belligerent partisans who hold their own ideology above evidence, practicality, and the common good. I have a problem with that, and you should too.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.