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Annie, put down your pen

April 19, 2007 |  5:19 pm

Jacobsen_4 It's all too easy nowadays to stir up feelings of ill will against Muslims. But Muslims (or people who look like Muslims) and airplanes -- well, you've got yourself a fear-mongering career!

Writer Annie Jacobsen has made a pretty good living doing precisely that since she penned an alarmist column for Women's Wall Street almost three years ago, in which she documented the purportedly suspicious behavior of 14 Syrian passengers on board Northwest Airlines flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles. Jacobsen's lengthy "Terror in the Skies" reads like a chapter from a Louis L'Amour novel, gripping readers with the harrowing tale of a woman enduring three hours at 30,000 feet of powerlessly watching would-be terrorists methodically taking turns building a bomb in the lavatory.

The column seems to make a compelling case for racial profiling; indeed, Jacobsen wrote in the first paragraph that the flight made her "question whether the United States of America can realistically uphold the civil liberties of every individual, even non-citizens, and protect its citizens from terrorist threats." She accuses the federal government of all but purposefully turning a blind eye in the name racial hypersensitivity to an air travel system practically begging for another terrorist attack. The problem is, Jacobsen's column is full of distortions, disputed claims and outright falsehoods about aviation security that could have been fact-checked by any marginally skeptical reporter. (I won't take the time to pick apart Jacobsen's original column, which has been thoroughly debunked here, here and here. The New York Times, which doesn't provide its older content online for free, also published at least one news article questioning Jacobsen's account.)

So why dredge up a years-old column that may have been a reaction not unlike others after 9/11? Am I just piling on a tired column for the sake of mean-spirited punditry? No -- it's Jacobsen who won't let her alarmism fade and humbly accept the fact that, like many passengers who fear flying, she simply overreacted. Since her July 2004 column, Jacobsen has written 27 (!) follow-up pieces under the banner "Terror in the Skies," her most recent installment posted online this week, April 18. I hope it's her last.

In her April 18 column, Jacobsen rightly points out the absurdity of a lawsuit by six Muslim imams who were kicked off a U.S. Airways flight in November after passengers expressed fear over the clerics' praying in the airport. The clerics have every right to sue US Airways, but their lawsuit goes too far by naming "John Doe" -- the actual passengers who complained to US Airways about the clerics.

But Jacobsen put the lawsuit in the larger context of what she insists is the government's botched reaction to (you guessed it) flight 327. In fact, Jacobsen has repeatedly insisted in her Womens Wall Street columns (and even a book) that those 14 Syrians on board her flight did indeed try to blow that Boeing 757 out of the sky, but dropped their plan just before touch-down in Los Angeles.

Like the evil terrorists they are, those Syrians (who turned out to be musicians in the U.S. on legitimate visas) later played at a concert at a hotel-resort in San Diego.

Reading Jacobsen's columns, it's easy to forget the most simple fact of her Terror in the Skies series -- nothing happened. Her plane landed safely, just as thousands of flights a day in the U.S. end without incident even though a random passenger may freak out occasionally. Most passengers, though, don't score book deals and pen alarmist columns that call for hardcore racial profiling after their ordeals, especially at a time when it's never been safer to fly on an airplane.

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