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Annie Jacobsen, Terrorism and the Fear of Flying

“We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages — they haven’t ended yet.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, from Deadeye Dick, 1982

If you’re tired of hearing about Annie Jacobsen, so am I. Please don’t take it out on me. A month ago we were in the midst of a multi-week conversation about airports and terminals. Annie came calling and now, like a bad case of jet lag, she won’t go away. You can lay some of the blame on this very column if you want, for bothering to indulge the tenacious paranoia seeded by this story, but as a pilot and air travel columnist I feel uniquely qualified, perhaps obligated, to stick with it. The larger media has presented few, if any, rebuttals from those within the ranks of civil aviation.

Don’t look now, but has just published part three of “Terror in the Skies Again?”, in which Annie celebrates her incendiary non-story having made it to the ears of policymakers in Washington, DC. That a Website ostensibly devoted to the financial interests of American women has posted a hideously callow, three-part (thus far) sermon on what it pathetically characterizes as “national security” is shameless. That officials on Capitol Hill are now paying attention is somewhere between disheartening and irresponsible.

Part three of Annie’s reactionary triptych is shorter than the first two, but no less infuriating in its relentlessness and arrogant eschewal of the facts. Although it was widely reported that the Syrian musicians aboard flight 327 had not overstayed their I-94 limitations, once again we are baited with talk of those “expired visas.” Elsewhere, in a reference to the musicians, the word “harmless” is enclosed in quotes — yet another instance of the kind of sleazy conjecture that has been this story’s only selling point from the beginning.

“It seems to me that the highest-ups don’t like having to get information that involves national security from articles written by yours truly,” Annie explains. Probably not, and neither do the rest of us, particularly when that information is a bunch of alarmist balderdash.

“I’ve kept quiet about numerous matters that have surfaced over the past few weeks,” she writes. “But there is something I must share because I find it so telling.” Annie has a way of ceremoniously preambling the most banal commentary. True to form she goes on to describe a suspiciously paraphrased tit-for-tat telephone conversation with an understandably insulted and annoyed Syrian Ambassador, Dr. Imad Moustapha.

“I spoke at length with the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee,” Annie informs. “It was an honor and a privilege, and I believe things are finally in the right hands.” Let’s hope those hands, manicured by your tax dollars, have the good sense enough to toss this matter where it belongs.

I was unable to procure a transcript of what Annie had to say to this Committee, which was attended by representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and the Federal Air Marshals Association. But then, bound by the precepts of honesty and fact, there’s only so much she could say:

“Dear Judiciary Committee Members:

At the end of June, 2004, I flew to California in the company of a large group of Syrian musicians. During flight, the men acted much the way large groups of passengers act aboard flights the world over. They talked a lot, moved around a lot, ignored the seat belt sign and made frequent trips to the toilet. With the images of September 11th still fresh in our minds, and because the men were Arabs, their behavior was unusually conspicuous and, on some level, cause for concern. We landed safely and it was later determined that the men were professional artists legally in this country. They had no records and were not on terrorist watch lists. Taking every precaution, government authorities followed the men, witnessed their concert performances and checked out their hotels. They have since returned to Syria. I find this experience deeply troubling.”

A full third of the home page is devoted to the “Terror in the Skies Again?” series, including a list of chronologically arranged links connecting readers to “follow-up information.” While my own July 30th column is notably absent, included are click-overs to National Public Radio, the New York Times, and seven separate articles from the right-wing Washington Times, a paper that has, more than any single source, propagated this affair through continuously vapid coverage.

The latest Washington Times piece borrows select details from Annie’s original account, repeating one of her most manipulative observations: “Upon returning to his seat, one man mouthed the word ‘no’ as he ran his finger across his throat.”

Among the letters I’ve received over the past couple of weeks, several have taken me to task for not bothering with a point-by-point dissection of the musicians’ in-flight conduct. Annie presents a theater in which the are men engaged in everything short of an onboard decapitation and a Frisbee game down the center aisle: they congregate and socialize; they bring cameras and cell phones into the lavatories; one removes a long skinny object, draped in cloth, from the overhead bin. What do these things mean?

Embedded in each tiny snapshot is a nugget of scary-sounding detail. But that’s precisely the narrative’s undoing; the entire thing is an out-of-context cheap shot of gratuitous detail. The men brought phones into the toilets? Who cares? Were the phones in their hands, or clipped to their belts? And if the former, what would the point be when all he’d have to do is slip the device into a pocket to conceal it? What of the item wrapped in cloth? An ivory-handled scimitar magically slipped past security? And so forth. It’s ridiculous, especially when we accommodate even a small measure of embellishment.

We’re supposed to give Annie benefit of the doubt and not deride her as a nutcase long on bad writing and short on psychoactive medication. But like any pilot, and particularly one who answers questions from the general public, I’ve been privy to countless distorted chronicles from passengers about the last terrible flight they were on. Usually these stories have elaborate, totally implausible details such as the airplane banking upside down, pieces falling off, flight attendants screaming, ad nauseum. Is it not unreasonable that “Terror in the Skies Again?” includes similar fear-induced enhancements and exaggerations?

As for the Times regurgitation of the man mouthing “no,” Annie initially wrote that the men were speaking Arabic. Yet the Arabic word for “no” is “la.” When I presented this to Annie a week ago, she stammered and sputtered before contending the men had spoke both English and Arabic. It’s also my understanding that the hand-across-the-throat gesture is a custom in parts of the world meaning full, complete, or “finished”.

Virtually everything Annie claims to have witnessed is patently and obviously explainable. That is, unless viewed obsessively through a prism of fear and politically motivated conjecture. To reiterate a point I made last time, Annie’s crime was not feeling anxious aboard flight 327. Her crime is trying to make the rest of us anxious more than a month afterward.

She and her partisan allies have succeeded in pushing this matter beyond the realm of air travel and onto the greater stages of politics and civil debate. It does not belong in any of these places, frankly, and thus I’m offended on two levels. First, as a pilot and air travel pasionado; secondly as an American.

As anybody familiar with my work as an aeroevangelist knows, commercial flight means more to me than any seat-of-the-pants thrill of airspeed and altitude. My infatuation with planes led directly to an infatuation with geography and travel. Studying the route maps of the airlines as a sixth-grader, I was inspired, as an adult, to visit places like Cambodia and Mali. In 2004, travelers can fly nonstop from New York City to China, Singapore, South Africa and the Middle East. Never before has air travel had the potential to so easily bridge cultures and open minds.

Whether they’re intended to or not, stories like Annie Jacobsen’s work to squander that potential, encouraging Americans to stay home, distrust their neighbors, and above all else be afraid — afraid to fly and afraid of the world.

Heaven help us when terrorists strike again. By all indications we will find ourselves living in a fortress-nation more resembling a Soviet-bloc police state than a liberal (with a small “l”) Democracy. The mail I’ve received of late certainly paints an ominous picture — one of a nation in the paralytic throes of absurdity:

– A United Airlines 747 jettisons thousands of gallons of kerosene into the Pacific and swoops back to Sydney, Australia, for an precautionary landing because a discarded airsickness bag, with the letters “BOB” scrawled across it, is found discarded in a lavatory. The crew interprets the acronym to mean, “bomb on board.”

– A Canadian-Pakistani man is removed from a plane in Denver because a flight attendant reasoned he “looked like a wanted terrorist.”

– Military fighter planes scramble to escort a jetliner into Kennedy airport after group of Indian karaoke singers chat excitedly and point toward the Manhattan skyline.

– Buddhist monks visiting the Grand Canyon spark the alarm of tourists who worry they might be “terrorists.”

– A Sikh university student is detained and interrogated for five hours by authorities in Boston for taking photographs of a campus chapel.

Excavated from the rubble of September 11th could have been, and should have been, a crucial and instructive lesson beyond the expected hand-wringing over security and preparedness. Specifically, a call for American citizens to broaden their horizons and develop a smarter sense of the world’s mechanisms and conflicts. Instead, we appear to be growing even more insular, myopic, and unimpressed the fact that large numbers of people despise us for reasons a tad more complex than “they hate freedom.” It’s a path we follow at our own peril, and exactly opposite to what global tensions mandate. We can’t tell the difference between an Indian, a Tibetan, and an Islamic radical. More to the point, we don’t seem interested in learning what those differences are.

Annie Jacobsen represents the worst of America: pandering, irrational, dismissive of evidence. Assembling a scare story based entirely on raw speculation, she has nonetheless arranged herself a bunker impervious to full discredit. Her Syrian musicians will always be terrorists, no matter the facts and no matter anyone’s official statement. And when the next batch of genuine terrorists strike, whether by airplane, truck bomb, submarine or on horseback, her lowest common denominator strategy retains just enough vaguely rendered credibility to shout out: “I told you so.”

In the end, Annie and I agree on one thing, even if we concur from opposite poles: As Americans it serves us to be vigilant, cynical, and skeptical. Dangerous times indeed.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on 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 Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.