July 27, 2004

Where Angels Fear to Tread

The time has come to write about Annie Jacobsen, "Terror in the Skies," and Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles. As most of you know, Jacobsen wrote a harrowing account of a flight in late June that appeared to reveal serious lapses in our airline security and in-flight protocols.

The original article is here; Jacobsen's follow-up is here. No, Women's Wall Street is not associated with The Wall Street Journal, and if you presumed it was I want you off my site. Now. Go. Away.

The main contenders here are Michelle Malkin (ably assisted by Spoons) and Donald Sensing (aided and abetted by The Commissar). Malkin feels that this was a sobering account of serious security breaches. Reverend Sensing feels it was a non-story (or, as he puts it later, a "shaggy dog story").

And they both have points. But they each get off the rails at various times, and:

1) Full disclosure: my sister is a half-Syrian musician. My father gave her blonde hair, but still—if you mess with her, I will mess with you, and I won't give it a second thought. Know that.

2) Annie J. is on a hair-trigger from the beginning of the flight (and the article). But the way she got there is interesting, and I think a lot of her fear can be laid at the feet of the airlines, airport security, and the Air Marshals. More on this later.

3) I believe the 14 Syrians on this flight were real musicians—not terrorists—but I still think "Terror in the Skies" is instructive. Sensing (post #3):

Do I think Islamofacsist terrorists would like to hijack an American airliner and either blow it up or use it as a terror weapon? Of course I think so. But that's a generality to which anyone can agree. The hard case is whether Annie's flight specifically was either a near-hijacking or was being cased for terrorist's future purposes. And on that question no certain answer can be given . . .

No. The Jacobsen article was a first-person account about the fears experienced on a flight by a woman who had reasons for grave concern (no second screening of passengers at the gate in Detroit, even after they had been to the airline restaurants; flight attendents failing to keep passengers from congregating by the cockpit door; an apparent lack of monitoring of the situation in the restrooms [later proved to be unfounded, as the restrooms were apparently checked by Air Marshalls throughout the flight for any bomb-making materials]).

Because of the way the Jacobsen article was written, it's easy to come away feeling that if this one instance was not some sort of probe by terrorists (and I don't believe it was), there is nothing to be learned from it. But there is. Jacobsen was simply being a good journalist, telling us what details she noticed in her hyper-alert state, and which details the FBI asked her about the most later (e.g., the McDonald's bag, which was in fact taken into one of the lavatories). She is being honest about her fears and state of mind, but also trying to give us as much detail as possible, so that we might evaluate her subjective experience as objectively as we can. She's been unjustly vilified for this.

4) My understanding of the ritual prayers required of Muslims is that they wash their hands before praying, and that the prayers must be done at certain times of day. This is shit we should know; it would ease our minds a bit, reduce the "terror" we feel. (See some of the commenters on the snarky Slate entry, especially the ones who aren't slinging around silly charges of "racism.")

5) It is apparently the norm for Middle Easterners (and some Mediterranean people) to congregate in the aisles and otherwise "misbehave" while they are flying, so there are certainly cultural differences at play ("par-taaaay," remarks one commenter at Little Green Footballs; she is married to a Syrian). Another woman, an Israeli, writes:

everyone here seems to find standing in the aisles, and hanging out in the aisles on the plane weird behaviour... well, you need to see my fellow Israelis flying ... especially on holiday flights form tel Aviv To Istanbul. or Cyprus... in a word .. pandemonium. i love my country men, and I'm proud of my country , but, darn, we Israelis are ppains in the assess in the sky.we have mega shplikas on planes.. the minute the plane is up in the air, everyone gets up, goes and blabs in the aisles, invades the food and drinks, sit on the doors, blocks the aisles, flirts , compares travel itineraries, find out your buddy from the army is 5 rows back and so you stand together in front of the sweradessess galley blabbing for 3 hours...and basically act as if its party time. el al stewardess can handle it... but i flew on an english charter last year from tel Aviv to London, when the steward almost started crying.. we were that bad.

She also explains that excellent airport security is a "great equalizer," and that once you've been through that security, "you are kosher." Which brings us back to one of Annie Jacobsen's main points—that she cannot quite bring herself to trust the way we handle pre-boarding security in the USA, given the magnitude of the 9/11 failure and the failure to check people once more at the gate before they get on the plane. (Would it be that hard to get a metal knife from a restaurant by the gate and sharpen it discreetly before bringing it aboard? No.)

But,

6) The flight attendents should have told everyone on Flight 327 to sit down. When in Rome . . . one commenter has remarked that the flight crew was lax because they knew Federal Marshalls were on board. This is a scary idea.

7) Some commenters on Slate actually suggested that for Annie to go up to one of these "suspicious" Syrians and smile, recalling their earlier cordial moment, was culturally insensitive on her part, and would have been perceived as a come-on by the guy in the goatee. I'm having trouble understanding how returning a smile from someone when you are a guest in their country is a big thing to ask. The PC crowd from Slate helpfully suggests that Jacobsen should have had her husband do this, which ignores two pertinent facts: a) Annie herself was the person who had the earlier exchange with Mr. Goatee; and b) it shouldn't be that hard for someone—even a dirty, ignorant, can't-help-it Middle Easterner to pretend women are people, too. Think to yourself, "this is a person. Only without a penis." (Had Ms. Jacobsen been in the Middle East, it's fine to flop the logic and expect her to conform to cultural norms. As it was, all parties were in the West, where women are people.)

Am I still not getting through to you? What if a Jim Crow-era Southerner were in a Northern city in the 1950s, and he needed information from a black clerk at a store. Would it be the responsibility of the clerk to swap places with a white clerk, so as to make the Southerner feel more comfortable, or would the onus be on the immigrant from Jim Crow land to get over his prejudices and relate to the black person as a human being? Some things are not just culturally relative, and the humanity of all persons is one of them.

8) One of Jacobsen's pivotal points was that airport security here in the U.S. of A ain't quite what it is in Europe, and that fact hardly reassures us when we try to give our own authorities the benefit of a doubt. That is, if Detroit had required that everyone pass through security again before boarding the plane, the article "Terror in the Skies" probably wouldn't have been written.

9) Another of Jacobsen's major points was that no one seemed to be minding the store once the plane was in the sky. Of course, we now know that flight attendents have been instructed to tell passengers to stay in their seats and not form lines for the loo. Again—had this policy gone into effect one day earlier, no "Terror in the Skies." And no blogstorm, either.

At no point does "Sensible" Donald Sensing discuss the fact that both the airlines and the Air Marshalls aboard the plane allowed groups of Syrians to congregate outside the cockpit door. Nor does he seriously address the issue of there being no second screening of passengers at the gate, preferring to assume that once passengers are screened, that's it—anything they have with them is assumed to be okay (even the McDonald's bag, where it's a silly claim for him to make: the McDonald's bag was clearly acquired after the passengers were screened).

10) So far the mainstream media isn't covering it, but there have been reports of "probing" by jihadists, and—for anyone who hasn't read it—there is this report by James Woods of a possible pre-9/11 trial run. And:

11) I personally don't believe bin Laden—or any of his colleagues—have given up on the idea of making airplanes go boom. Operation Bojinka was foiled in '95, and the 9/11 plot was half-foiled (in that only two of the intended targets got hit). Keep in mind that certain targets can capture the terrorist imagination: the World Trade Center apparently did, to the point that after one set of jihadists tried to bring it down in '93 another went ahead and did it in '01. Logic suggests that AQ will concentrate on a ground attack, but I don't think they work entirely on logic. They will hit us again in the skies, probably by making planes blow up in midair, Operatioin Bojinka-style.

12) I haven't been able to independently corroborate the claim that there is a Federal "only two of any given ethnicity per airplane" rule on questioning passengers. (But the Norman Mineta memos were clearly designed to intimidate the airlines. Also, see Patterico's thoughts on the effects of the lawsuits brought by the ACLU, and this Front Page article on how the ACLU is undermining security.)

13) Neither have I been able to verify Clinton Taylor's theory in this NRO article that the band might well have been Nour Mehana, "the Syrian Wayne Newton," and a handful of backup musicians.

14) To try to get news from KFI Los Angeles is just crazy, and this account of the Flight 327 incident is ludicrous; the supposed Federal Marshalls involved will neither identify themselves, nor describe what Annie was doing that was supposedly so dangerous. I would discount this entirely unless these "sources" are willing to go on-record, and explain the discrepancies between their account and Jacobsen's. Or at least be specific in their criticisms of her actions. So far as we know, all she did was sit in her seat, fret about the safety of her family, and attempt to exchange a smile with a Syrian. (The link I've given for the KFI story is a Google cache, since they apparently don't have permalinks for KFI news items. Totally bogus.)

15) Annie Jacobsen's biggest blind spot is her apparent assumption that if you don't see the government doing something in a big, obvious way, it isn't being done. That can, of course, be a dangerous attitude. But it's not hard to see where she got it. And the opposite attitude, "it's fine, we're safe. The Feds have it under control" is more dangerous.

16) I don't think Annie is a racist. Hell, I don't think Arabs are a race.

Now be safe. And don't try to take those knitting needles on the plane.

UPDATE: Some fact-checker I am. It's "Jacobsen," not "Jacobson." But for your Googling pleasure, here it is—wrong: Annie Jacobson, Annie Jacobson, Annie Jacobson, Annie Jacobson, Annie Jacobson, Annie Jacobson.

Annie Jacobson. Hey—I was digging the traffic.

Posted by Attila at July 27, 2004 01:41 AM
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