After taking a week off for the fundraiser, it’s Monday again: time for the latest installment in Dymphna’s Greatest Hits. This is the first of two parts; she wrote a follow-up several months later.
When I read this post earlier today, all the controversy about Annie Jacobsen and her airborne encounter with Syrian trombonists came flooding back into my mind. It was so long ago, and so much has happened since, that I had completely forgotten about it. It’s worth noting that the infamous “flying imams” incident hadn’t occurred yet — that was eighteen months after this post.
Silence of the Sheep
Originally published April 25, 2005
Back when it happened, there was a big furor. Annie Jacobsen’s original account in July, 2004, of her trip to LA in which there were fifteen Arab men among the passengers on board the flight — men who seemed to her to be acting suspiciously — was fisked fifteen ways to Sunday. In the end, her story suffocated under the weight of condescending dismissal; many of her detractors used ad hominem attacks to discredit her story, accusing her of being publicity-hungry and worse. Even Snopes chimed in, labeling it a false urban legend.
Now the story resurfaces, this time with a four-and-half-hour interview of Jacobsen by the FBI. Again, she relies on her intuition, linking things the FBI agents tell her to make a story that fits her original concern.
The agents who sat with me all morning going over the events of flight 327 seemed sincerely committed to getting to the bottom of what happened on that flight. It seemed obvious that they believe something happened. Was it a probe? A dry run? A training exercise or an intelligence gathering mission? My sense is that the jury’s still out on a hard and fast answer. But flight 327 was far from a situation involving 13 hapless Syrian musicians and a case of bad behavior. [emphasis added]
Jacobsen’s recounting of the incident brings further information to light:
The first thing I clarified for the agents was that, prior to my experience on flight 327, I had never heard of a “probe” or a “dry run.” For the record, I explained, I had never heard of the James Woods incident either. (In case you’re not aware, the actor James Woods flew on an American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles one month prior to 9/11. Alarmed by the behavior of a group of four Middle Eastern men, Woods summoned the pilot and told him that he was “concerned the men were going to hijack the plane.” A report was filed with the FAA on Woods’ behalf but, tragically, no one followed up with Woods or the men. A few days after 9/11, several federal agents showed up in Woods’ kitchen…)
And when they showed up in Jacobsen’s kitchen, they told her that Mohammed Atta had been one of the four men on Woods’ plane in the month before 9/11.
Jacobsen’s original story seemed compelling. It had enough alarms to wake the nearest firehouse. Faced with the fact that there were fifteen men of Middle Eastern origin on the same flight as she was, and given their behavior, she relied on her intuition.
This faculty is crucial in battle; it can be the deciding factor and should never be ignored. What you can access of your own feelings in the midst of the situation may keep you inside the other guy’s OODA loop. Intuition is part of observing the territory — “territory” being you and your adversary. Intuition is a vital component in that map. Remember the old saying about “flying by the seat of your pants”? Colonel Boyd’s OODA loop broke that old chestnut open and showed how the pieces fit together not only to make a skilled pilot, but to bring him home more often than not.
That’s why Donald Sensing’s final analysis on this story was so disappointing. Here was a retired artillery officer, a man of discernment and integrity, who, instead of relying on his vast experience in field conditions, used his academic studies in textual exegesis, for heaven’s sake, to decide that her story failed on the merits:
I literally make my living interpreting texts. The art of doing so was part of my Master degree curriculum. There are two terms useful here. “Exegesis” is the art of “drawing out” from a text what it is relating, the art of interpreting what is there. “Eisegesis” is “putting into” the text that which is not there, springing from the readers preconceptions.
According to the Reverend Sensing, those who found Jacobsen’s story credible were guilty of “eisegesis.” His determination was flawed in this case. Other people, experienced fliers, were putting themselves in her place and finding their own intuitive faculties were in tune with hers.
This is often true in battle, too. The danger is felt rather than perceived, and because someone has the courage to act on mere intuition — which is often a whole body sense that bypasses what you “think” in order to apprehend the truth directly — they and their fellow soldiers get to go home (however eventually) in a vertical position, walking to the plane instead of being carried in a flag-draped coffin.
Sensing, as a minister, should remember how exquisitely tuned Jesus’ intuition was. He used it to discern any number of less-than-obvious realities and go straight to the heart of things. His remark to Nathanael — “before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” — is one of dozens of instances of Jesus’ intuition. It is a faculty to be developed and used, not one to be dismissed by leaving out important aspects of another’s experience. Thus, Sensing’s comments on what amounts to Jacobsen’s “After Action Report” are disappointing at best.
And Sensing, as a rhetorician (which all preachers have to be), should remember the danger in categorical errors. Jacobsen’s report was not a scriptural text, it was her take on an anomalous experience. It is a categorical error to apply biblical exegesis to battle reports.
Now it appears that nine months after the fact the FBI sent four agents to the Jacobsen’s home for a lengthy interview. Given her description of their meeting, the demeanor of these agents was not adversarial. In fact, in some ways they affirmed her intuitive response to the situation in which she found herself. Thus it is reasonable for Jacobsen to assume that “they believe something happened.” What that “something” is may never be discovered. Or it may be discovered and never disseminated. At the very least their interrogation is a partial vindication of Jacobsen’s intuition.
A disclaimer: like home-grown tomatoes, I don’t travel well. As Phillip Larkin said, “I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come home the same day.” It’s not a matter of being afraid of flight — a plane is simply a bus with wings — as much as it is a disinclination to leave home. A disinclination which has been increased by the current airport environment: like something from Hades.
Nor am I given to flights of fancy concerning terrorists. On the other hand, were I to get on a plane and find myself in the midst of fifteen suspicious-looking Arab men, I would simply get off the plane. Unlike a bus, one can’t simply pull the bell. But you can make a big enough scene to get out in one piece and that is what matters.
In The Gift of Fear Gavin de Becker explains how intuition can save your life and how the fear of making a scene or not being a “good” — i.e., polite and quiet — girl can cost you in lifelong suffering. As one reader put it, “our powers of intuition are the best protection we have against violence.”
What appears to underlie much of the contention here is that American culture is good at shaming people, especially women: don’t rock the boat (plane), don’t make a scene. You’ll embarrass everyone. My family has been apprised of the situation in our case: should there appear fifteen Arab men on any flight on which we are booked, the plane will take off without us. And that means no matter what the cost in embarrassment or condescension by experts and authorities.
Political correctness, bowing to authority, and textual exegesis be damned. This is one group of infidels who will not be traveling ladylike into that flaming, eternal sky.