View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

NY Times To Annie Jacobsen: Drop Dead 

The New York Times, ever on the lookout for a way to minimize the terror threat, has an article explaining why the whole thing was one big cross-cultural misunderstanding. Interestingly, "Now Boarding, Cultural Misperceptions" appears in the Business section, rather than the News or Travel sections. So if you're a tourist, you should still worry?

As lingering questions get answered, however, the impression grows that Flight 327 was an example of how, in a general atmosphere of fear, cultural misperceptions can create big trouble.

Well, not all the lingering questions have been answered (See below), and I'm still not persuaded there wasn't something funny going on.

It might help to understand that ethnic musicians flying from the Detroit area (a center of Arab-American culture) to back up an Arab pop singer at some shows in Southern California do not exactly travel like Jennifer Lopez. They fly coach. They tote big McDonald's bags. They speak in a language that is incomprehensible to many fellow passengers. Being a band, they tend to be both cohesive and restless, meaning that on an airplane they are likely to get up and gather in small groups, just as Ms. Jacobsen and her husband noticed with increasing alarm during the flight.

Non-sequitur city, but one that raises lots of lingering questions. If these same ethnic musicians were traveling from Minneapolis, er, Kansas City, would they have been able to upgrade? Sure, they're Syrian, but they were here to play a gig. What difference does it make where they transferred? Or did they stay in Detroit. And if so, what were they up to there?

Nobody expects them to travel like Jennifer Lopez. J-Lo would travel in first class. Which, come to think of it, is where the 9/11 guys were caught hanging out by James Woods. Mrs. Jacobsen didn't care what kind of bag they had. She cared that it was full going to the bathroom, and empty coming back. Unless Mr. Sharkey can tell us what was in the bag.

Bands are more likely to get restless? Like women with children won't get restless? Ever been on a flight from New York to Tel Aviv, Mr. Sharkey? That's restless. You don't fly to Israel, you walk. These guys were on a plane for what, 4 hours, and they were up and down like a bunch of jack-in-the-boxes.

"Sometimes, fear can cause you to look at things the way you want to believe them to be," said Mr. Azmeh, who often plays with an internationally known Syrian band called Kulna Sawa. Kulna Sawa, by the way, has been incorrectly identified in several online accounts as being the band on Flight 327.

I think I know what website they're talking about. Read it again, Mr. Sharkey. It was a joke.

They are members of a shifting group of musicians who sometimes are hired to back up an Arab pop singer named Nour Mehanna, who is a popular act at casinos and nightclubs in areas with sizable Middle Eastern ethnic populations.

Mr. Mehanna himself was not on Flight 327. Besides backing him up in a show at Sycuan, a tribal casino near San Diego, the Syrian musicians accompanied him during a show at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Garden Grove, Calif., before flying back East on JetBlue. That flight was uneventful.

One other strange note sounded on the trip. The musicians were all traveling with Syrian passports and special United States visas issued for cultural visits. On arrival at the Los Angeles Airport, the men were questioned by federal air marshals and by the F.B.I., but not by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who might have noticed, as the F.B.I. says it did not, that at least some of the visas had expired in June.

Visas for entertainers from Syria, a nation defined as a state that supports terrorism by the United States government, are notoriously difficult and time-consuming to arrange and keep valid, according to Syrian musicians. The musicians left the country this month, and attempts to reach any of them so far have been unsuccessful.

It wasn't like the Times dug any of this up on its own. Would it really have been too much trouble to give credit to Mr. Taylor? Evidently, since they didn't even bother linking to Mrs. Jacobsen's original article. (The online version did, however, contain numerous in-story links to Times advertisers.) And catch that "nation defined" as a state sponsor of terrorism. Hezbollah probably has their subscription to the Times delivered under its own name to its press offices in downtown Damascus, but it's only the US that "defines" Syria as a problem. Heck, Times reporters have probably been to the Hezbollah press offices in Damascus. And it's not surprising they haven't managed to contact any of the musicians. Remember, they couldn't find the casino is question.

Meanwhile, federal officials familiar with Flight 327 have not questioned the gist of Ms. Jacobsen's narrative, just her interpretation.

Others openly question that interpretation. "What was the motive for people to look at them like that?" asked Ali Rayes, owner of Transtour Express, a travel agency in Anaheim, Calif., that booked the trip. He said the men were unsophisticated and thus not inclined to be acting like wise guys egging on terrified passengers. "They were innocent people who have families to feed, and that's why they're doing all this traveling."

What was the motive? What rock did Mr. Rayes just crawl out from under?

If there's anything we learned from the 9/11 guys, it's that Islamist terrorists tend to be a curious mixture of planners and dolts. Nobody thinks they were deliberately freaking out passengers for fun. And nobody thinks that they shouldn't have been on the plane, as musicians. It's what they did while they were on the plane that got people a little exercised. Like this...

Ms. Jacobsen's account included an assertion, which federal officials have not refuted, that seven of the men got up from their seats seemingly as a group during the final approach into Los Angeles.

At that stage, even the flight attendants are strapped in. Under almost any circumstances, that could be reasonably interpreted as an overtly provocative gesture.

But cultural differences can suggest an explanation. "Have you ever been on a bus in Damascus when it gets near the stop?" asked someone who e-mailed me to protest the implications that these men were being deliberately intimidating.

Right. Ever been on a bus in New York? Ever been on a crowded subway? These men had already been on at least two flights headed into domestic airports. Either this flight was different, or they got spilkes two other times and weren't told to cut it out.

Making excuses for people behaving badly, especially Islamic Middle Easterners traveling in groups, backing up a musician who glorifies suicide bombing, who behave badly, doesn't do anyone any favors. It's only going to get people killed when they're so anesthetized they don't bother to react in time.

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