Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Blogosphere erupts over terrorist dry run

I try to keep this blog light most of the time, but the Internet is not all pop culture and political banter. The political blogs have serious things on their mind this week, namely the story of Northwest Flight 327 — an incident described as “a terrorist dry run” by federal air marshalls.

Audrey Hudson had details in Sunday's Washington Times.

Annie Jacobsen broke the story on July 16, 2004, in a terrifying column for Women's Wall Street.

At the time, many people rushed to criticize Jacobsen, accusing her of hysterics and/or racism.

At the time I was inclined to believe her story, and to accept her conclusions about what the Syrian musicians were doing, but I always get nervous when the blogosphere ends up telling me what I want to hear.

Read blogs for a while and you will develop a kind of informational allergy, a knee-jerk reaction against certainty and glib conclusions. This skepticism can be as irrational as gullibility in its own way, but the blogosphere is a sea of pure opinion, built on a framework of dubious facts.

Shaky, incomplete news reports are spun into elaborate fantasies and churned into rabid convictions. Then, a few months later, new facts contradict the old ones and the theory you've been defending for six months turns out to be false.

I read a lot of right-wing blogs and have to force myself to visit the other side. But I do visit the other side, because too many of my “gut reactions” have turned out to be wrong. That's the real lesson of Internet discourse — the real lesson I hope to share in this blog.

So, today I'm looking at a story that seems to vindicate right-wing paranoia about terrorism. The conclusions look clear, simple and obvious. Now it's time to go looking for a second opinion. The most “respectable” left wing blog I know of is Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo.

Josh and his cohorts are generally reasonable and mild in their presentation — clearly Democratic partisans without being shrill or stupid about it.

I didn't see any obvious discussion of it there, so I poked around for a while and found this from Andrew Lazarus at Daily Kos.

I love this example because the folks at Daily Kos are as casually dismissive of Jacobsen's story as the Powerline guys were accepting of it.

That's the essence of Internet discourse right there, and the key to making political judgments in the digital age. Two diametrically-opposed camps, both with convincing arguments and a fairly equal number of believers on both sides.

You can pick your ideology and lean toward one side or the other, or you can try to take the middle ground and give yourself hours of tedious homework.

You can accept the glib conclusions of bloggers you trust, or you can do things the hard way, and read the real report.

UPDATE: The crux of the issue seems to be the phrase “dry run.” I can't find air marshals using that phrase in the report itself, and no specific person is named in the Washington Times quote. I found video of Annie Jacobsen talking about “the guys on the ground” — air marshals that she has talked to personally calling this a “dry run.”

I guess your attitude toward that quote will depend a lot on your attitude toward Annie Jacobsen. TSA spokesperson Ellen Howe dismisses the phrase “dry run” and does her best to downplay the incident.

I still don't understand the behavior of the Syrian musicians. Were they being deliberately provocative so they could test the boundaries of their civil rights? Were they playing a joke to shake up the Americans? Even if you accept that these people were not terrorists, you have to ask yourself why they would be willing to look like terrorists, in a situation where they knew it would be provocative.

Maybe these guys really are just band members working for “the Syrian Wayne Newton”, and this was somebody's idea of a joke.

Perhaps we should talk less about terrorist dry runs and talk a bit more about Syrians traveling on expired visas?

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Written by Michael B. Duff

May 30, 2007 at 10:35

Posted in Politics

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