Wednesday, July 21, 2004


Musicians: The Ultimate Instruments... of Terror?

So there is this big to-do over this crazy lady (Annie Jacobsen) who flew on a plane with 14 Syrian musicians and is convinced that they were terrorists planning a "dry run" of 9/11 part deux. I heard something about this on talk radio yesterday, where all the paranoid racists are coming out of the woodwork to ban Arabs from flying more than one to a flight and to prepare for the coming terrorist apocolypse. The fact that this is a non-story (THEY WERE MUSICIANS!) has not stopped the story from spreading from the internet and talk radio venues onto TV news and even the New York Times. There is an excellent analysis of the whole situation on by Patrick Smith, a pilot. Smith acknowledges that Jacobsen has justifiable reasons for her anxiety on the flight - young Arab men have been known to hijack planes in the past and do bad things with them - and even admits to his "not as liberal on the issue as you might expect" stance on passenger profiling. But, as Smith points out, the lesson to be drawn from this situation is not that the airlines, and America, somehow failed by allowing these 14 Syrian musicians to fly together. After all, nothing happened. The problem, Smith asserts, is not Jacobsen's reaction during the flight, but her (and others') reactions after the flight.
That her story concludes in such a painfully boring anticlimax ought to be the very point, and in the final few pages she still has time for a constructive moral, the clear lesson being not the potentials of global terror, but the dangers of our own preconceptions and imagination. Instead, she pulls a vile U-turn and chooses to bait us with racist innuendo and fearmongering. Nothing happened, but something might have happened, and so it serves us to remain frightened and draconian at all costs, furthering our nation's pathetic embrace of maximum paranoia.
This is precisely the point. As much as Jacobsen denies any racism, her paranoid assertion that these Syrians could well be terrorists trained as musicians and her quoting of Ann Coulter seem to outweigh her story about traveling on a plane with Muslims and Hindus in India and not being afraid (After all, why should she be? If the terrorists want to attack America, it doesn't seem likely they would hijack a plane in India). As Patrick Smith writes:
Jacobsen's kicker: "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?"

Excuse me? She concludes, as did the radio host Tuesday morning, by insinuating that the men were terrorists, despite every shred of evidence, not to mention common sense, arguing to the contrary. And with that her article, and her credibility with it, plummets from merely sensationalist to inexcusably offensive.
How Orwellian - just like a good patriot, to spit bravely in the face of fact and find in a non-event a paranoid call to action: God bless Annie Jacobsen and right wing talk radio. This is how we have come to live in a culture of fear and hatred.

I just read the EJSharkey article in the NYT about this. He says he couldn't find the Syrian band -- in a parenthetical aside, seemingly suggesting that maybe they don't exist. Also, he says that he talked to airline people who say that everything that Annie Jacobsen says happened "probably" happened just the way she said it did. Sounds pretty creationist to me. And all us dinosaur PC types are just setting all the rest of the good Americans up for more awfulness in the skies, I guess. I think it's time to stop all airplanes from flying. That'll fix it!
I think the story has been overblown quite a bit...

But nonetheless, I think I'd still be worried if 14 white guys stood up and did the things they were doing, going in and out of the bathroom, one right after another, and huddling at the front and back of the plane like they were.

I would hope the story would be just as big if it were a Swedish band instead of a Syrian band but I know I never even would've heard about it.
I think you can find a reasonable explanation for pretty much every "suspicious" action that these guys took. Travelers in a group tend to converse with each other. If they are seated seperately they tend to congregate in the aisles or by the bathroom or wherever. When they turn the fasten seatbelt sign on at the end of the flight you know you better go to the bathroom right then or you might not get a chance to for another half an hour. Since most foreign airlines don't restrict congregating around the bathroom or in the aisles, what Annie Jacobsen thought was "probing" or testing the flight attendants was simply normal behavior.

On a humorous note, my favorite Middle Eastern history professor told me that she was suspicious because they were Syrian. Who hires a Syrian band? If it had been a Turkish band, or an Egyptian band, she would have been OK with the musician story, but Syrians? She was a bit suspicious. Hah. I don't know.
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