Anne Jacobsen of Flight 327 notoriety now has a book, “Terror in the Skies.”
Her publisher apparently noted my posts on the subject, as uncomplimentary as they were, and asked me if I’d like to read it and comment. I’m a slut for free books, and so even though I tend not to enjoy “insta-books” all that much, decided that it was worth reading because not only – it’s free! – but it might change my mind about something. I mean, God forbid I might have to learn something…
Sadly, after trying hard to get engaged by the book, I can’t recommend it to you as worth reading either as a policy document, history, or journalism.
Let’s go back through the history.On June 29, 2004, Jacobsen, her husband Kevin, and their young son flew from Connecticut to Los Angeles. One leg of their flight was Northwest flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles.
On that flight were “fourteen Middle Eastern men who acted as thought they might hijack the plane,” in her words.
The book is a close recounting of the flight, her reaction, and her efforts afterward to publicize and escalate the event to the attention of the American public – culminating in her publishing the book.
While my reaction to her original articles on the WomensWallStreet site were consistently and immediately hostile, when I got the letter from the publisher asking if I’d look the book over, I was genuinely curious. I tend to assume that most people are as smart or smarter than I am, and so if they see something of interest – except for professional football – there must be something interesting there. So maybe, with the luxury of more time to look into the background of the event, some nonobvious facts might have been brought up that would teach me something new.
So I really did open the book with as open a mind as I could.
And I held that open mind until about Page 14.
By this point, she’s described, in great detail, the flight, the actions of the Middle Eastern men on the flight, and her reactions to them.
And all my early criticisms of her writing came right back.
Let go through the points in some detail.
First, here’s what we’ll accept as a base level of fact.
There were 14 Middle Eastern men on the flight, who traveled as a group even though they did not sit together. They traveled on Syrian passports with questionable visa status (had they expired, as she suggests, or were they still in status as others have suggested).
During the flight, they moved around, talked to each other, and acted in ways that made Jacobsen and some other passengers frightened.
Once on the plane, we took our seats in the front of the coach class cabin, in the row second from the aircraft exit door (in seats 17A, 17B, and 17C). The man with the yellow shirt and the McDonald’s bag sat across the aisle from us in seat 17E. The pleasant man with the goatee sat a few rows back and across the aisle from us in seat 21E. The rest of the men were seated throughout the plane, and several made their way to the back.
As we sat waiting for the passengers 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. Kevin and I exchanged glances, then continued to get comfortable. I noticed some of the other passengers paying attention as well. As boarding continued, we watched as, one by one, most of the Middle Eastern men made eye contact with each other. the continued to look at each other and nod, as if they were in agreement about something. I could tell that Kevin was beginning to feel anxious.
He said that something was not right. he told me that he was considering having us get off the train.
Sound and portents. Everything is filled with foreboding – the single Middle Eastern man sits in the front row of first class, and she breathlessly points out that his seat is second-closest to the cockpit door.
Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled in cloth. He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object.Five minutes later, several more of the Middle Eastern man began using the forward lavatory, consecutively. In the back, several of the men stood up and used the back lavatory, also consecutively.
For the next hour, the men congregated in groups of two and three at the back of the plane for varying periods of time. Meanwhile, in the first class cabin, just a foot from the cockpit door, the man with the dark suit – still wearing sunglasses – was also standing. Not one of the flight crew suggested to any of the men that they take their seats.
Now in response to her reaction, I’ll suggest one points of fact and one of personal experience.
I’ve only flown into and out of Detroit a few times (I don’t a lot to do there) but it was surprising to me the first time how many Middle Eastern folks were on the plane. Then the little light bulb went on in my head, and I remembered that Detroit has one of the highest populations of Palestinian and Arab – Americans in the country. It’s no more surprising than the fact that the train I’m writing this on (the Surfside Express to San Diego) has a high concentration of Hispanic passengers.
I have flown as a part of groups before – to and from sales meetings, conferences, and the like. I’d worry quite a bit about what Ms. Jacobsen would have made of some of those trips…bleary-eyed hung over young men working hard to trip each other up verbally or physically. Or the time I sold my Hawaiian shirt to one of my seatmates because, as hung over as he was, it was intolerably bright.
As a group, we get up, we walk around and chat, steal each other’s drinks and peanuts. We gesture to each other.
But because we don’t fit into her prepopulated narrative of terror, we’re somewhere between amusing and annoying, not frightening.
So let’s talk about whether she should have been frightened.
What in the world would I do … even with the most evil intentions … with 14 hijackers on a modern plane?
Could I assemble a bomb in the bathroom?
Sure. But I don’t need 14 people to do it. And I can’t imagine that I’d be so long on suicidal terrorists that I’d use 14 of them on a one-way mission.
In fact, I don’t need to assemble the bomb onboard anyway, most likely I can just ship it – given the appalling lack of security in air freight – and set it to blow up midair.
So what else could I do with 14 terrorists on a plane?
Jacobsen suggests – at length – that this was a “probe” to test the responses of the security systems.
New to counterterrorism vernacular is the idea of a “probe.” Probe is the term used inside the Federal Air Marshal Service to describe “operatives gathering intelligence” about what goes on during commercial airline flights. A probe is inherently different than a surveillance flight because it involves testing non-variables, that is testing a human being’s response or the response of a group [sic].
That’s certainly an interesting possibility. What’s the appropriate reaction to a probe?
That’s right. The goal is to give away as little information as possible about the responses, capabilities, and tactics that will be used in the event of a real attack.
What is it about FAM’s reaction that she is so upset about?
They did nothing in response to the probe.
Look, it’s a 169 page book, and there are useful and interesting points in it.
I share her concern with the state of airline security, and her approval for the El Al version of “interviewing” all passengers and empowering the entire chain of employees who will have contact with them to raise security alerts that are taken seriously.
I’m bothered that a guy with an orthopedic brace big enough to hide a small handgun can get lightly searched while my wife is having her breasts fondled to make sure she’s not packing plastique in her bra.
But, first and foremost, I don’t believe that anything – any fact – about the Syrian’s behavior on the flight she was on deserved more attention from the authorities that it appears to have received.
I think that her breathless demand that the simple act of FWA (Flying While Arab) require massive law-enforcement attention is a silly idea. Not out of enlightened racial sensitivity (although pissing off an entire cohort seems like a bad idea), but because it diverts resources and attention from the next round of Islamist terrorists who could be Indonesian Islamists, Filipino Islamists, or black American Islamists. Not to mention the random white, Christian terrorists like Tim McVeigh.
She concludes her book with the Winston Churchill quote “Facts are better than dreams.”
Yes they are, even when the dreams are nightmares.
It would be outrageous of me to claim that she manufactured the media event in order to sell a book. That would be projecting as badly – or worse – as I believe she is in amplifying her anxiety during her flight. But that kind of fantastic projection is just what she engages in, and the subject – our vulnerability – is far more important.