Written by Annie Jacobsen of WomensWallStreet.com, the story is quite extraordinary. After boarding a plane with 14 Middle Eastern passengers, Jacobsen and her husband proceed to have a nervous breakdown when the men relieve themselves with suspicious frequency and talk in their own language. When she frantically conveys these harrowing events to the staff, the flight attendants pass notes among one another and then whisper to her that there are air marshals all around them ready to jump into action.
Jacobsen writes that the men continued standing up and sitting down with a frightening degree of coordination, in what one envisions as an airborne, hydrophobic version of synchronized swimming. They spoke loudly in Arabic and wore jumpsuits with large calligraphic lettering on them, suggesting that this particular cell slept through a few obfuscation lessons at Camp Qaeda. At the end of the flight, after one of several trips to the bathroom, the last to emerge from the head ran a finger across his throat mouthing the word "no." Funny, that.
Is she sure it wasn't laa? Since they had been talking exclusively in Arabic the whole time, it would stand to reason that maybe, just maybe, they would have mouthed their secret terrorist messages in Arabic as well. If she made up the "no," then the hand across the throat takes on a different meaning entirely. If she made up the finger across the throat bit, she probably mis-lip-read naam which is, of course, Arabic for "yes." Except nothing blew up. Finally, and perhaps least ridiculously, the gentleman may have actually run his finger across his throat and mouthed naan, emphatically expressing his desire to avoid the South Asian leaven bread cooked in a Tandoor-- Indian food from the previous night being responsible for his frequent trips to the lavatory.
Think this stuff is out there? Well here's another gem from Part II of the story: According to Jacobsen, pilots have come out after the first piece was published and confided in her that daily terrorist dry runs are a "dirty little secret" of the airline industry. Apparently these pilots didn't feel it was worth making a big deal about terrorists executing dry runs on their airplanes until a bourgeois menopausal schizophrenic published a glorified blog piece to an obscure financial website.
Back in the real world, after being detained for several hours at Jacobsen's insistence, the 14 men all turned up clean-- a few innocent musicians unfortunate enough to be caught on a plane with the wrong passenger.
Here's a parallel that the less geeky among you might appreciate more than something with .exe in the title: Does the name Johnelle Bryant ring a bell? For anyone who doesn't remember this one, she was the USDA employee who fabricated a story about how Mohammad Atta had come to her office for a loan. Atta supposedly wanted to finance a plane that could be outfitted with chemicals and explosives in every inch except for the pilot's space. When she said it would take a few days to process, he threatened to slit her throat. He then proceeded to ask her about the security at various tourist attractions. Noticing a picture of the Pentagon on the wall, Atta offered to pay her money for it. When she declined, he got angry and asked her how she would feel when it and other American landmarks would be blown up. He told Bryant that Osama bin Laden would very soon become the world's great leader.
Bryant claims she had never heard of that person (bin Laden, not Atta) before 9/11, so she couldn't have recognized the name. After the terrorist attacks she came forward and told her story with the hope that other Americans would take action where she hadn't, blaming her negligence on an effort "to help him make his relocation into our country as easy for him as I could." In a similar vein, this latest piece from Annie Jacobsen takes as its thesis that America must pursue a more ambitious racial profiling strategy because "if 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?"
Bryant's tale made it not only to the cycle-driven cable news networks who have begun picking up this more recent version, but to a prime time interview with ABC. It will come as no surprise when Jacobsen makes the rounds in the days to come. Their stories are clung to by the same people for the same reasons, and have the same driving argument. Putting the civil liberties debate aside, let's just say that this isn't exactly the most useful case in point. People are more than welcome to debate the merits of racial profiling, but this case-- just like Johnelle Bryant's-- isn't one they would want to use.
These stories exist at the awkward intersection of ego and agenda, and in the often perilous information frontier that is the internet. Bryant was not simply recalling an event, but aggressively urging fellow Americans to "pick up the phone and make the call that I didn't make." Jacobsen is attacking what she sees as "the heart of the matter" behind the terrorist threat in America: "political correctness." What is troublesome is when these stories evolve from acceptably biased and exaggerated attention-grabs into legitimate news. Important to note is that this was not a product of the corporate media, but emerged instead from that most chaotically democratic of free presses: the internet. While experienced browsers tend to be the medium's greatest skeptics, the newsgroups and chat sites where these stories percolate are quick to forward trivial tracts like "Terror in the Skies" until the Annie Jacobsen's of the world are bona fide instapundits.
This phenomenon of disseminating unsubstantiated claims without any effort to confirm them is certainly not limited by political ideology. Everyone remembers the widely spread hoax that CNN had aired decade-old footage of Palestinian children celebrating in the streets to fan post-9/11 racism. In fact, the footage was real, and the myth had mushroomed from a single erroneous email by a college student in Brazil. And what became of Johnelle Bryant's story? As it turns out, Mohammad Atta wasn't even in the country until several months after Bryant said he asked her about landmark security and threatened to slit her throat. And the sulfnbk.exe "virus?" It's still there, sitting on millions of computers, waiting for those stupid enough to delete it.
Salon.com: "The Hysterical Skies"
National Review Online: "The Syrian Wayne Newton"