Monday, July 19, 2004

Terror In The Skies!!!

We here at Respectful of Otters are having a lousy day at work.

Typing that, I am reminded that two previous lousy days at work have involved (a) a psychotic HIV-positive person bleeding on my desk from a self-inflicted wound, and (b) an erect penis I very much did not want to see. Considered in that light, today looks much better... and yet it's still been the kind of day that makes me want to retreat into fantasyland.

Annie Jacobsen, of "Women's Wall," is ready to oblige.

If you read World O'Crap, and you should, you're already familiar with the story. Essentially, Jacobsen and her husband were on a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles with a group of 14 Middle Eastern men. This seems to have been all that was needed to send her into a tizzy of racist paranoia:
As we sat waiting for the plane to finish boarding, we noticed another large group of Middle Eastern men boarding. The first man wore a dark suit and sunglasses. He sat in first class in seat 1A, the seat second-closest to the cockpit door. The other seven men walked into the coach cabin. As "aware" Americans, my husband and I exchanged glances, and then continued to get comfortable. I noticed some of the other passengers paying attention to the situation as well. As boarding continued, we watched as, one by one, most of the Middle Eastern men made eye contact with each other. They continued to look at each other and nod, as if they were all in agreement about something. I could tell that my husband was beginning to feel "anxious."
The Middle Eastern men continued to behave extremely suspiciously throughout the flight, provocatively chatting with each other, making eye contact, reading, possessing musical instrument cases, using the restroom, and failing to smile at the strange woman who had been keeping them under surveillance since they boarded. Apparently, at least one flight attendant was also caught up in Jacobson's anti-Arab hysteria, although some of those details are hard to believe. (For example: "About 20 minutes later the same flight attendant returned. Leaning over and whispering, she asked my husband to write a description of the yellow-shirted man sitting across from us. She explained it would look too suspicious if she wrote the information. She asked my husband to slip the note to her when he was done. ")

There is literally no way to make sense of Jacobsen's article if you don't start from the assumption that Middle Eastern men are terrorists. None. She complains that their carry-on luggage was not searched - by which she apparently means that it wasn't searched in front of her, at the gate, because all carry-ons go through security screening. She derives great drama from one of the men walking to the restroom with a bulging McDonald's bag and returning without it. (What do you do with trash you've brought onto an airplane? I suppose Jacobsen would hand it to a flight attendant, rather than throwing it out herself.) She finds it deeply suspicious that the men appeared to know each other, although they weren't sitting together. (I've been seated apart from my Significant Otter at times, when we were late arranging a flight. And we weren't trying to book a group of 14.)

When the Evil Terrorists got off the plane, they were met by the FBI - presumably the work of Jacobsen's flight attendant friend. Jacobsen and her husband gave a statement, and later called "Dave Adams, the Federal Air Marshal Services (FAM) Head of Public Affairs," who proved to be remarkably free with other airline passengers' travel information. He explained that the Middle Eastern men were all members of the same band, had clean records, and were traveling on the flight because of a legitimately confirmed gig. Jacobsen is still not satisfied:
So the question is... Do I think these men were musicians? I'll let you decide. But I wonder, if 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?
The right-wing blogosphere is predictably apoplectic, although there are also some reasonable exceptions. More sane commentary comes from the incomparable Sisyphus Shrugged and from Trish Wilson. The dramatic incident of the Coordinated Bathroom Visits is neatly disposed of by World O'Crap commenter Karin:
I have travelled in the Middle East and this sure sounds like prayer time to me. Muslims pray 5 times a day at specific times, and they perform ablutions(wash up) before they pray. That explains why everybody had to use the lav at the same time. Then they would have gone back and prayed quietly in their seats, or standing toegher in small groups in the aisle. I'm sure they were trying to be discreet about it, which ironically caused the passengers to get so paranoid.
The strangest part of the whole story, to me, is that Jacobsen and her supporters continue to maintain that what she observed was a terrorist attack in the planning, despite every piece of disconfirming evidence provided them. (They "appeared to know each other" because they did know each other - they were a large group traveling together but seated separately; they were carrying instrument cases because they were musicians; they were searched and investigated without turning up any evidence of evil intentions.) I suppose that I can understand how a nervous person might become frightened on the flight itself, especially with other people (including flight attendants) succumbing to hysteria. But it takes determined prejudices to remain convinced that death was narrowly averted even after a thorough security investigation revealed nothing.