Tuesday, August 31, 2004

If you find a cash cow...

Annie Jacobson's 'terror' flight cross-country has now turned itself into a series prominently displayed on the front 'page' of Women's Wall Street (not to be confused with the WSJ). Her story is like hydra; chop off one head, and it grows another. In journalism, normally I'd consider this exciting -- as one professor once said, "There's a story with legs and look at it walking right out the door."

But I have no respect for someone who is willfully spreading thinly veiled racism and paranoia under the guise of investigative journalism. You only have to read Ms. Jacobson's words to realize that nothing less than throwing these 14 Syrians into prison will appease her. In fact, I'd laugh at her if it wasn't for the fact so many people are buying into her story, that there were indeed musicians masquerading as terrorists aboard this Northwest flight and that even after they were checked out so thoroughly, people are still calling them terrorists. Whatever happened to presumption of innocence? Or does that not happen when flying Muslim and in large groups?

And don't get me wrong: I have no doubt there are terrorists in the United States and I firmly believe we must take all sensible and rational measures to protect the population at large. But to go around and immediately cast 14 rowdy Syrians as terrorists and contine to do so even after all evidence points otherwise? I have no patience for that. That's not investigative journalism; that's just crap, but people are buying it because these days, fear sells. It's the idea of "us versus them" or "good versus evil" that gets the blood boiling to hyper-patriotic levels.

A colleague said to me when Ms. Jacobson's article first hit the Internet that "Guess what? It's not the blond-haired blue-eyed people who are terrorists." It's a rationalization, a justification to signal out a particular ethnic group and slap an all-purpose brand on them. But here's the rub, folks. Believe it or not, there's a long, long list of airplane accidents not caused by Islamic fundamentalists. We only remember the Islamic fundamentalists because they brought themselves to our attention so spectacularly and terrifingly on September 11.

If you're curious about other terrorist acts in the air not caused by Muslims, see here for the entire list. I'd like to point out one particular incident -- the downing of Air India Flight 182 from Montreal (not Toronto as written in the article), which is the largest air disaster of all time. The terrorists responsible were Sikh. I remember this, not just because it was an Air India, but because a good family friend was on that flight, but flying 'Sikh' doesn't raise eyebrows these days -- even for me, though personal experience should dictate otherwise.

However, jemima points out that profiling isn't about old grudges, but rather about current statistics. So given that, yeah, we ought to focus more on Muslims to the exclusion of anyone else -- even if history shows that non-Muslims have enough of that incomprehensible hatred and anomosity towards Americans (or anyone else for that matter -- let's not make this American-centric) to kill. But there's got to be a line in the sand, when you have to stop back and say, "Hey, there are Muslims who travel in large groups who aren't terrorists and there are people with information who know these things." I postulate that given current evidence, there's a journalistic responsibility to be had and taken seriously when one is trying to blow a second wind into a story that, by all counts, ought to be on its last leg.

But as for Ms. Jacobson? What she's doing is not journalism -- it's fearmongering, buoyed by current events -- and milking it for all she's got. If it's been verified and proven by intelligence officials that a particular individual isn't a terrorist, then what the hell is Ms. Jacobson doing, going around trying to say otherwise? Does she think she's breaking some vast government conspiracy to not protect America from terrorism? And if so, MSNBC (among others) has already beaten her to it (perhaps we could have used Annie Jacobson and her powers of insight and logic before September 11). But most damning of all? You'd think John Ashcroft would jump at the chance to throw not one, but 14 terrorists in jail. Hmmm, on second thought, maybe the only conspiracy here is the one in Ms. Jacobson's head.

Link of the day: Terror level alerts: Collect them all!

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