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July 23, 2004
Terror Or Panic On Northwest 327?

Anne Jacobsen turned the blogosphere upside down one week ago with her harrowing recounting of her flight from Detroit to Los Angeles on Northwest 327. At the time, I remarked that

I felt that cold nugget of fear in my guts, telling me that this flight was fortunate to have arrived at its destination. However, several details about the story bother me. For one, the flight attendants shouldn't have acted the way the did in Jacobsen's account, especially divulging the air marshals' presence on the plane. I also doubt that there were "several" air marshals on one flight. Lastly, if the pilots knew of the disturbances early in the flight, they should have put the plane on the ground immediately, not risked the long journey to LAX (especially LAX, as the potential for ground destruction is more pronounced).

Nor was I the only one who questioned some of the details of the story. Donald Sensing, for one, thought that the details were so fantastic that Jacobsen had to have exaggerated the story. Redstate came out even stronger than that and claimed it was a hoax, which soon was debunked by FBI and other sources that confirmed that at least the framework of what Jacobsen wrote was true. Early this morning, however, as Michelle Malkin noted in an update to her post about the Syrian musicians carrying expired passports, the federal air marshals involved on Jacobsen's flight insisted that the only danger on Northwest 327 came from Jacobsen herself, as her overreaction to the presence of a group of Arabs threatened to cause the marshals to take action to restrain her and blow their cover:

Undercover federal air marshals on board a June 29 Northwest airlines flight from Detroit to LAX identified themselves after a passenger, overreacted, to a group of middle-eastern men on board, federal officials and sources have told KFI NEWS. The passenger, later identified as Annie Jacobsen, was in danger of panicking other passengers and creating a larger problem on the plane, according to a source close to the secretive federal protective service. ...

Jacobsen and her husband had a number of conversations with the flight attendants and gestured towards the men several times, the source said. ...

The source said the air marshals on the flight were partially concerned Jacobsens actions could have been an effort by terrorists or attackers to create a disturbance on the plane to force the agents to identify themselves.

Air marshals only tactical advantage on a flight is their anonymity, the source said, and Jacobsen could have put the entire flight in danger.

Tonight, my good blog-friend the Commissar at Politburo Diktat wrote a provocative post, Jumping At Shadows, which makes a lot of good points in chiding his fellow American comrades for allowing their fears to carry away their common sense:

We are freaking out. Panicking. Overreacting. Getting jumpy. For Chrissakes, GET A GRIP, comrades. We (I mean Ms. Jacobsen) are, by the words of our federal air security officials, a creating a danger in the air. What if some jumpy asshole, inspired by Ms. Jacobsen, had decided to "move on the cabin?" Comments like "eject them midair" were made. (Now there's a thought.)

The war on terror will be long. And hard. Courageous soldiers are dying in Iraq as part of that war. Courage. Hemingway defined courage as "grace under pressure." We gotta show a little of that too, comrades.

I tend to agree with the Commissar here, to a degree, but I think the problem here is that Americans have little confidence in an airline screening system that concerns itself with political correctness more than passenger security. We have invented silly rules to ensure that everyone's feelings are hurt equally rather than focus on the profile of the people that make war on us by hijacking airplanes and driving them into buildings. Even the 9/11 Commission executive summary couldn't overcome the paradox, arguing on one hand that Islamofascists comprise only a microscopic fraction of Muslims, and then arguing that defeating Islamofascism is difficult because it appeals to millions.

So instead of profiling people from primarily Muslim countries for transportation security reviews, we penalize airlines for putting more than two Muslims through the more stringent screening processes for flights. Instead, we force old ladies, former Medal of Honor winners, and children through screening just so we can say we've demonstrated our egalitarian spirit. And we let 14 Syrian musicians with expired passports to get on an airplane together rather than inconvenience them by forcing them to update their paperwork before accessing the same system that was used to destroy the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon, and (by the way) kill 3,000 people.

Under these circumstances, I can understand why Anne Jacobsen may have overreacted, although -- and I say this very firmly -- that overreaction could be just as deadly as any actions terrorists might have tried on the plane. Remember that Jacobsen didn't know about the marshals until well after she got panicked. She had no idea that any other authority but the flight staff was on board, and the flight staff seemed reluctant to challenge the group to follow flight rules about congregating and (later) walking around when the seatbelt sign was on. But if we had confidence in the screening process to protect us from the terrorists, confidence in flight crews (highly underpaid for security work, BTW) to control the situation once in the air, then passengers like Jacobsen wouldn't get freaked out by a dozen or so swarthy-looking dudes sitting in coach and talking with each other.

The Commissar is right about getting jumpy and overreacting, and the inherent dangers of panicking passengers mid-flight trying to take matters into their own hands. The air marshals shouldn't have to risk having their cover blown just to restore order and prevent needless vigilantism. However, American air passengers need a security screening process that gets serious about defending us from the real enemy and concerns itself much less with being PC.

UPDATE: Michelle Malkin, who deserves a lot of credit for staying on top of both the story and both sides of the reaction to it, answers those who consider Jacobsen to have overreacted:

Who's freaking out? The unnamed marshals who spoke to KFI are popping veins over the Jacobsens for having merely discussed their concerns with the flight crew and "gestured towards the men." The couple didn't jump up and scream "We are going to die!" They didn't faint or have heart attacks. And they didn't confront the 14 Syrians while they all stood up before landing, went to the bathroom, and congregated in the aisles in violation of security regulations. (No one confronted them, for crying out loud. That is the problem.) ...

The message that the alarmed and panicked marshals are sending out is that if and when we view suspicious behavior, we should all just sit tight in our seats, shut up, and do nothing until it's too damned late lest we possibly risk blowing their cover.

Meanwhile, Tom Ridge and Norm Mineta ask us all to be vigilant, buy our duct tape, hand over our nail clippers and knitting needles, keep our lips sealed, and relinquish complete control and responsibility for homeland defense--and self-defense--to The Professionals.

Two words: Hell, no.

Michelle also links to a republication of the Flight 93 story from the 9/11 Commission report -- an excellent narrative by the commission, by the way -- and urges us to remember that had the passengers from 93 followed that advice, we'd probably be rebuilding the White House or Capitol building today. However, I would add that if 93 and the other three flights had armed air marshals on board, we may have had 19 dead hijackers and 3,000 or so of our fellow Americans still alive. Again, if we had transportation security that instilled confidence, passengers like Jacobsen and her family would not have had to "freak out".

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 23, 2004 9:36 PM

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Tracked on July 24, 2004 3:31 PM

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