Yet Another Jacobsen Post

There has been a lot of interesting reaction to my (and others’) criticism of Anne Jacobsen’s story of terror on flight 327. I want to take a moment to set out what the critics seem to be saying (or what issues they are focusing on) and make sure that my replies are clear. I think that this opens a window into the central issues that will be facing us in the next year or so, politically and in terms of securing ourselves against the real threats of terrorism, so it’s worth taking some time and having a serious talk.

So let’s go through the issues.

First, and foremost, the general tenor of “We’re at war, dammit! The old rules of civility and political correctness are out!”

Um, actually, no we’re not.
Other than in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re in an armed conflict which we’re trying hard to win without turning it into a war, for the simple reason that as soon as it becomes a real war all kinds of really bad things will happen – to us as well as to the objects of our hostility. I’ll suggest going back to the founding 4th generation war document:

In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between “civilian” and “military” may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants’ depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.

We need to figure out how to live in a society where this is the case. And there’s a subtle conflict here – because winning the cultural conflict in which our openness and freedom are the powerful tools conflicts with the secrecy and control that are needed to face some of the military (or terroristic) threats.

This is, as the 9/11 commission correctly pointed out, a war where our values are as important as our weapons; we have to win on both fronts.

Second, visas and border control. There are conflicting reports over whether the Syrians overstayed their visas or not. There’s a series of questions about whether they should have been granted visas in the first place. I don’t think we’re nearly at a point yet where we’ll lock our borders to Arabs, and where we’ll start ‘processing’ Arab immigrants. There are, obviously a number of levels of action between doing nothing and that, and while I think a certain amount of TLC should be given to visitors from obvious states (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt as well as the gimmes of Iraq and Afghanistan), the problem is that we have limited resources and attention, and we have to choose where to spend it. When we devote total attention to tracking the whereabouts of visitors from one of those countries, we have less attention to spend on visitors from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sudan, etc. etc. And further, that by building impenetrable walls – or walls so high that no one bothers to come through them – we risk losing the other half of the war, the war of ideas.

Third, the issues of airport security. There’s a great scene in ‘Parenthood’ where a mother is looking at photos her teenage daughter has taken of herself having sex with her boyfriend. “There are just so many things wrong with this…” she says. I say that pretty much every time I fly. Airport security is just bad, and it’s frustrating to me that this is the case. Clearly, if what Patterico and other claim – that there is a de fact or de jure regulation prohibiting searching more then X Arab-appearing passengers, it’s idiocy. But it’s a small idiocy that’s a part of a much larger one we’re all living with today; and the question I’ll ask is how we will decide our priorities as we set out fixing our idiocies.

I believe that the core defense against hijacking today is a) that it’s fairly hard to get weapons or bombs onto planes (as it was pre-9/11); and b) passengers aren’t going to let anyone hijack a plane.

Or at least I believed that until I read Anne Jacobsens’ story (more on that in a bit).

So in terms of the two of the broad issues raised by Anne Jacobsen’s story (visa control and passenger screening) we’ve got three points to make:

1) it’s not clear what the visa status of the musicians was, and it’s far from clear that it matters. Fixing our systems so that no one overstayed a visa – or that no Arab overstayed a visa would be difficult if not impossible, and I’m unclear on the value that we’d receive.

2) it’s also not clear whether they went through secondary screening, and what advantage going through secondary screening really brings. Again, I’m so mental about what I perceive as the weakness of airport security that I want to get started…but in this specific case, let’s ask the question – how does Jacobsen or anyone else know what screening they went through when they entered the sterile area? It appears that they weren’t re-screened when they boarded the plane, but that’s a procedure of such limited usefulness (they took a kitchen knife from the restaurant!) that I can’t get exercised about it.

3) their behavior on the plane – wandering around, congregating – is exactly the behavior I’ve engaged in when traveling in groups and I’ve seen dozens of times while traveling. I won’t even get to the ‘Muslim prayer’ issues. Now I wasn’t there, and I’m judging what happened based on what she wrote – but the breathless prose and self-acknowledged terror make her an unreliable narrator at best.

So do I think we ought to do a closer scan on visitors and immigrants from threatening places? Hmmm. Maybe. A lot depends on what it will cost – what other measures won’t be done, and how it will effect our ability to ‘sell’ our society effectively. The problem is that – like the attacks themselves on 9/11 – it isn’t failures in our procedures that worry me, but failures in our doctrines.

Do I think that we ought to automatically do secondary searches on Arab men? No. And I don’t say that because I have dark skin and could be mistaken for an Arab. I’m not worried about their feelings; I’m worried that the resources it will take to do this are resources that we ought to be using more intelligently, rather than blindly. I’d rather that airport personnel took an extra minute with each passenger to do an Israeli-style interview than that we picked 2% of the passenger stream out, stripped them naked and ran fiber-optic probes into every orifice. Mainly because it might be the wrong 2%, and secondarily because (as above) we need to win the battle of ideas and we won’t do that once we indiscriminately treat every Arab as a proto-hijacker.

One of the things about the article that most set me off was her tone. I have a long history of taking bloggers and other people to task for this, because I believe, above all, that attitude and mindset drive performance.

And what does her mindset show?

She was scared in the beginning, got more scared in the middle, and was scared at the end. In between, the only thing she did to ensure her and her family’s safety was to share her alarm with the cabin crew.

What I would have looked for was some determination, some planning, some measure of critical thinking. And I didn’t see any of that…

We’ll win this thing with determination, planning, and critical thinking. When someone finds those in Anne Jacobsen’s work, let me know.

15 thoughts on “Yet Another Jacobsen Post”

  1. Just because a visa expired while in the United States does not make that person illegal.

    What you have to look at is the stamp as issued by USCIS at the port of entry. The officer has final say on how long a particular person can stay. He can extend it or reduce as they see fit.
    My uncle was given a mere three month visa at the US Embassy in Bangladesh, but on his arrival his visit was extended to a year.

    Nevertheless, even they entered American territory, they had to go to through the immigration equivalent of a rectal exam, especially given the fact these musicians are Syrians. Once vetted at the Embassy, they are vetted again at POE, which they had to submit to eye and fingerprint exams. Clearly that, there is no reason to refuse them.

    If there is a failure anywhere it would be the US Government, not these Arab musicians.

  2. A.L. : To me, the most interesting thing about this story is the memetic warfare that errupted around it. Charles had, I think 5 or 6 entries on it, and didn’t Winds have 3 or 4? *Everyone* blogged on it. The memesets shifted back and forth, and when the dust settled, everyone had pretty much embraced their original positions. So, while I didn’t actually see anyone’s mind changed about the article (whether it was accurate or not, whether Jacobson did the ‘right thing’ or not), many beings used the story to underscore their own original hypotheses. A ‘perfect storm’ of information, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

  3. A few points. First, you believe we’re not at war. It’s your right to believe that, but it sure puts you at odds with those of us who believe we are. It’ll be kind of hard to find common ground if we can’t even agree on that premise.

    Second, you say you don’t think we’re ready to bar the door to all Arabs. I’d agree. How about barring the door to people from terror-sponsoring countries? I see no good reason that Syrians should be allowed to visit the U.S.

    Third, you write: “I believe that the core defense against hijacking today is… that it’s fairly hard to get weapons or bombs onto planes (as it was pre-9/11).” You’re mistaken. It was trivial to get weapons onto planes before 9/11. It’s not much more difficult now. As for bombs, this is easier still. Plastic explosive can be hidden in almost anything, and there is no routine practice of sniffing passengers or carryons for explosives. Most liquid explosives can’t be detected by bomb sniffers at all.

    Finally, you criticize Jacobsen for not doing more? Boy, she just can’t win for losing with you guys. Most of her critics claim that she did far too much — including the laughable suggestion, supposedly from the air marshalls, that they thought she was endangering the plane. Now you think she didn’t do enough? The critics say she overreacted, and should have relied upon the stewardess’ representation that there were air marshalls on board. Now you say that she should have been developing a plan on her own. I don’t see how you can have it both ways. What is the level of planning you would like to see? She made careful observations of what she saw, and of what the men were doing. She brought that to the attention of flight personnel. She continued to monitor the situation. Is that too much, or two little? What would Armed Liberal have done in that situation?

    What we have learned of the system does not inspire confidence. We’ve learned that 14 Syrians were allowed to fly, probably (at least possibly) with expired visas. We know that they were allowed to violate flight regulations by congregating near the bathroom, and by getting out of their seats during descent. We know taht despite this, and despite the fact that this was on a day where there was an alert for attacks against flights, these men were never confronted about their behavior. We also know that the air marshalls have a policy against intervening until suspicious persons actually take action against the aircraft or the crew.

    You want to complain about tone? I find yours to be rather blasé about the continued threat of terrorism, and unreasonably hypercritical towards a citizen who did her best to act reasonably under circumstances that most of us would find terrifying. I just don’t get it.

  4. Right from the get go, this story reminded me of the chase across FL of “terrorists” reported by a Georgia woman. And it was fuelled by the likes of Michelle Malkin, who still isn’t acknowowledging that she just *might* have made an error in judgement in buying Jacobsen’s story wholesale.

    Now I’m seeing stuff from the believers that people disbelieved Jacobsen because she’s a woman…what claptrap. I’m still trying to see the logic behind “I trust Bush because he’s the only one who can keep us safe” vs. “I can’t trust airport security and air marshalls and the INS to keep us safe”…they’re all under Bush’s watch, are they not?

    Jacobsen may have indeed been sincere, but that does not excuse the widespread and wholesale acceptance of her story of those who want to believe that groups of swarthy men are going to run our airplanes into the ground.

  5. There is a great deal of merit in your post.

    Americans, in general, are approaching the ramifications upon our daily lives of this conflict much the way we approach policing in our communities. We want the police to get out of our lives and go get the bad guys. We want to be policed only to the extent that it does not inconvenience us. I believe this reflects our collective feelings about the WOT: It is something we have to do to make things better, but we’re in no real danger.

    Today we are nearly as asleep at the wheel as we were prior to Sept 11. We may have had a cup of coffee to wake us up, but it’s begun to wear off.

    You’re right. We’re not at war – we’re not a country galvinized by our wake up call.

  6. A.L.
    I agree with most of your assessment. I also think that the crowd that responded to the last discussion agree as well. Keep in mind we are talking airport / airline security only and not the host of other issues for rail / bus / ship etc..

    Where I don’t agree with you.
    _’Fixing our systems so that no one overstayed a visa – or that no Arab overstayed a visa would be difficult if not impossible, and I’m unclear on the value that we’d receive.’_

    This in effect is our first line of defense regardless of how difficult or impossible the task may seem it *_must_* be fixed or replaced with a system that works. Keeping the riff raff out is the number one priority. (locking up the paint doesn’t stop the graffiti) This is the major reason we have the current issue. Our systems have been compromised and those that are here now are virtually undetectable. This is our national level of support. If you’re worried about the dollars on this one the others wont matter a hill of beans.

    Primary screening of passengers is required and has nothing to do with the failures of our primary national defense. It’s only common sense that people are forgetful or sometimes just plain stupid. Carrying on weapons such as guns and knives occurred prior to 9/11. It is now portrayed in a different light because of 9/11. Forgetful or stupid it just didn’t seem to occur to anyone that someone just might use them.

    Secondary screening once unheard of is now required because of the failures of the first two defenses. National then public safety. It became painfully clear that both lines of defense failed during 9/11. Secondary screening is now based on assessments and observations not fear. Attention to detail determines secondary screening. More surveillance lavatories included?

    The issues as Annie puts forth is none of the things we are doing are good enough to ensure her safety. My guess is if Annie could have done the secondary screening herself she still would have been uncomfortable. Why? She can’t trust herself let alone anyone else. Once bitten by a spider kill all spiders regardless of genre.

    What can we do?
    A national ID card for all Americans? It’s been talked about but the descent and defeatist attitude is rampant. They falsify passport, driver’s license, social security identification so why would this be any different?. More importantly does anyone believe that an American Citizen will not commit an act of terrorism? (ELF, KKK, etc..)

    Put GPS chips in every visitor to the US to track them? Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it, but don’t think for a minute someone hasn’t thought about it.

    Talk to each and every passenger prior to boarding? Watch the lines increase and the tempers flare regardless of the security it provides. BTW this I am not adverse to. Stand in line at the bank long enough eventually you get paid so patience does pay off. Not to mention my patience has earned me free upgrades now and then.

    We do what we have always done. We improve our security to a level of safety that all will be comfortable with. Civil rights or not there are some things we have to give up in the interest of public safety.

  7. A.L.,

    The fundamental area of difference is the belief that we are not war. All of the other positions are based against the belief that we are not presently at war – from visas / immigration to airport security. If you are wrong about the basic premise of being at war – then you could be wrong on the other issues – even though the immigration and airport security issues are valid discussion points outside of any war.

    After the al-Qaeda Feb. 1998 declaration of war on America, and the series of attacks made against the US in 1998, 2000, and 9/11/01 – on what basis can you take the position that we are not at war? Because terrorism is a criminal act? Because al-Qaeda isn’t a sovereign nation state? What made Pearl Harbor an act of war?

    It’s naive to believe that we are not at war…and from this, your other points are based on a faulty foundation.

  8. jinderella
    Although I agree with your statements there are those of us who questioned the processes currently in place verses Annie’s story. As was aptly stated before in lieu of Annie’s discomfort some of fail to see where the current processes failed. The unfortunate part is we wont see it until it does. (That’s not to say we can’t mitigate the risk) Yes Annie did have a valid point about eateries in the secured area of the airport. Makes sense to place those facilities prior to the check points, after all metal or plastics can be damaging. Break a CD or DVD in half and now you really have a lethal weapon. Pens and pencils can be just as effective if you really want to know truth. The criminal mind never rests and our prison systems can attest to it.

  9. Spoons (8:57pm) and Athos (9:43pm):

    You take A.L. for task for saying “we aren’t at war.” As the 4th Generation Warfare document he quoted shows, he’s not being clear (bad A.L.!)

    The point is that “war” itself has changed because of technological progress. Thirty or a hundred years ago, NGOs practicing “war” on the United States could be handled, or not handled, within the peacetime paradigm. (Puerto Rican nationalists assaulted the White House in the 1950s; we didn’t declare war on P.R. in response).

    Domestically, “war” has meant increased sacrifice by citizens, notably restricted civil liberties (including involuntary service in the armed forces) and financial sacrifice. In the past, war came to an end; we won, lost, or drew within a few years. With the exception of the Cold War–probably the best historical analogy for what we now face.

    What about Al Qaeda’s declared war on the West? Does anyone believe that OBL’s capture or the death of 95% of the current crop of jihadis will end this war in the next 10 or 20 years?

    From A.L.’s post: the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point, [with] no definable battlefields… Actions will [include participants’] society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.

    This is war, but not war as we knew it. Civil liberties that are suspended “for the duration” are likely to stay suspended through our lifetimes.

    So asking “what rights and liberties are we willing to give up to prosecute this war?” becomes the same as asking “what rights and liberties are we willing to give up, permanently?”

    Quite a question to pose to a Republic founded on the precepts of the innate and natural rights of man. Every incident like Flight 327–not to mention The Next Big Thing–will make this question weigh more heavily.

  10. Visas and border control. Here is “a long article”: about the Open Borders ideology. Our society has drunk this Kool-Aid–millions of illegal people already live among us. “Tastes great!” says “The Wall Street Journal.”: Our economy now demands the services of these folks–nannies, busboys, Wal-Mart janitors, construction labor… Who thinks that “homeland security” is compatible with the presence of millions of undocumentable second-class citizens, mostly stuck at the bottom of the U.S. wage scale? Anyone?

    Airport/airline security. Two months ago, in the security line, I couldn’t find my driver’s license, my only Photo ID. What happened? I was “red-tagged”, meaning careful wanding and a hand search of my carry-on bag. The other folks in my party? No special treatment. Any effort judge the claim that the name on the ticket corresponded to me, like checking the contents of my wallet? Nope. Worked for me–I almost made my flight–but what do incidents like this mean? I fail to see how any determined person can be kept from flying by current policy. And this doesn’t even tackle the thornier problem of phony ID. Not on 9/10/01 but earlier this year, California was debating whether or not to issue Drivers’ Licenses to illegal immigrants on the basis of the notoriously forgeable Matricula Consular.

  11. As I wrote on my own blog, what actually happened on Flight 327 doesn’t make a great deal of difference. Ms. Jacobsen’s reaction and the reaction of many in the blogosphere are proof positive that if the objective of the TSA is to make us feel safer, it’s failing.

    We desparately need to engage in a national dialogue to identify our objectives, decide on the best way to achieve them, and start doing it. It didn’t happen in the aftermath of 9/11 and it didn’t happen in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. Is it happening during the Presidential campaign? I sure don’t see it.

    Since you can hardly put a knifeblade between the positions of Mssrs. Bush and Kerry on War on Terror and the war in Iraq (other than that Mr. Kerry feels he would have done a better job), there doesn’t appear to be any real dialogue or any real choice.

  12. Dave / AMac
    Cudos all around. Writing our congressmen, senators, and executive branch (which I have done time and again) demanding we start doing something about our borders and immigration policies is a start. The 7th hearing of the 9/11 commission brings to light the issues we face. Unless we hold those people accountable with our voting policy it will be BAU. We all agree on this issue BAU is a bad thing. If BAU continues the next candidate that makes a commitment to doing what is necessary gets my vote. I guess you could say I’m an Independent but I’m more nationalist than anything else. It is our country and we have the right to run it as we (the nation) wants to!

    My hope is the 9/11 commission report will serve as the catalyst to heed the warning that should evoke actions. I don’t believe it’s too late and I wont take a defeatist attitude for an answer.

  13. USMC:
    This is true! It is like “Proving Programs Correct”! You can prove there are no detectable bugs in your software, but you cannot prove there are no undectectable ones. Until they blow up your code. :-)

  14. Armed liberal…

    Do you really think we are not at war?

    Sorry but in this post you sounded to me as fallen into the political correctness of dhimmitude; that is: a disarmed liberal.

  15. Individual States in the U.S. could be taking a number of security precuations that could have a real effect on the war on terror. With a continuing threat such as this, you would think the State Legislatures would immediately go about restructuring and retraining the National Guards for the primary purpose of terror prevention and recovery. That the Guard would receive the needed training and equipment to integrate themselves with local and state police. After all, that was one of the original functions of the State Militias (National Guard)and a task they are best suited to. Sadly, that has not yet happened.

    Basic security is lacking in many States. For instance, in Michigan there are still no metal detectors or security at the entrances to the Capitol. No police foot patrol in the surrounding area. People regularly carry packages into the Capitol without the packages being examined. Terrorists strike where they see weakness. The current conditions, sadly, project just such an image about Michigan’s Capitol.

    Mark Harm
    Candidate for State Representative – Michigan

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