Ah, the luxury of retrospect!
Having taken up an entire week's worth of valuable blog space with a self-congratulatory paeon to my one-year bloggiversary, I'm now playing catch-up to last week's news. The advantage here is, not only do I now get to comment on the latest stories sweeping the blogosphere, I also get to comment on the commentary! Which means I can discard opinions I think are worthless, piggyback onto the ones that I think are meaningful, and, on rare occasion, come up with an original thought of my own.
As anyone who blogs or reads blogs regularly now knows, the big story over the past couple of weeks has been the sad, sorry tale of one Annie Jacobsen, who boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Detroit bound for L.A., was subsequently terrorized for four and a half hours by 14 Syrian musicians with overactive bladders, and then rushed home to write about her horrifying ordeal for all the cyber world to see.
What? You don't know about this? Well, I'm not going to link to her story, because she's received enough ill-gotten publicity as it is, but I'll summarize it for you briefly: She was on a plane. Two groups of Middle-Eastern-looking men got onto the same plane. After takeoff, they made frequent trips to the bathroom. Annie got scared. The men made eye contact with one another. Annie got even more scared. One of them gave her a dirty look. Annie became so scared she alerted a flight attendant. In an effort to calm her down, the flight attendant humored her by telling her they were "aware of the situation," and that "air marshals were on board." But instead of being reassured, Annie became officially terrified. Then the plane landed and everyone got off. The End.
But it wasn't quite The End, because instead of breathing a big sigh of relief and kicking herself in the head for her own silliness, Annie was not convinced that nothing untoward had been unfolding on that plane. So she immediately ran home and wrote an article about her "harrowing" experience which was published online at Women's Wall Street under the oh-no-not-inflammatory-at-all title "Terror in the Skies, Again?" The blogosphere went wild! The article was emailed around (why can't that ever happen with my pieces?), she appeared on many newscasts. Her article was characterized, by turns, as "terrifying," "thought-provoking," "hysterical," "racist," and a "shaggy-dog story."
My kindest characterization would be…"shameful."
Granted, I have not flown more than a handful of times since 9/11, but that's due more to financial constraints than any overriding fear of terrorists. Thinking back to my last flight (which was quite terrifying in its own right, thank you very much, simply because I had to fly in coach), I have to ask myself honestly how I would have felt if a bunch of swarthy men who all seemed to know one another got on board and roamed freely about the cabin while everyone around me was freaking out.
Would I have been suspicious of them? Yes.
Does that make me a racist? Damn skippy it does.
Should I be ashamed of myself for that? You'd better believe it.
And therein lies the difference between Annie Jacobsen and me. I know Shame. I understand Shame. Shame is a friend of mine.
Annie Jacobsen knows no Shame.
Had I been in Annie's position, being as scared as she was in the face of what ended up to be a false alarm, I would have felt like such a major-league asshole for thinking the thoughts I know deep down I would have thought, the last thing in the world I would want to do is to write an article letting the rest of the world in on my shameful little secret.
But, because Annie Jacobsen has yet to become acquainted with Shame, she perseveres in her assholedom, refusing to even acknowledge she was mistaken and continuing to insist that these men (who, thanks to her hysterical onboard and online rantings, have been thoroughly vetted, confirmed to have been musicians on their way to a gig, confirmed to have no criminal records, and confirmed to not be on any terrorist watch lists) were, in fact, terrorists conducting a "dry run." Her proof? She has none. But that doesn't mean she can't speculate to her heart's content.
And, what is almost more appalling than Anxious Annie's overwrought reaction to her fellow travelers' urinary habits is the furor arising on her behalf from those who support her. We're sacrificing our national security for the sake of political correctness, they bleat. What if they had been terrorists? We wouldn't be crying racism then, would we?
Well, no, we wouldn't be. We'd be dead. I doubt we'd be crying about anything at that point. But that's beside the point.
I'll say it again: Nothing happened. The plane landed without incident. There were no terrorists. The what-ifs don't apply. What we do have is, in fact, racism. Of a very common variety.
Most of us don't like to think of ourselves as racists. It conjures up visions of angry men in white sheets burning crosses on people's front lawns. We like to think we are better than that. We like to think we judge people for what they do, not what they are. But the fact is, we're all racists. White, black, red, yellow, burning crosses or not, race provides the context for our perception of the world around us, particularly where other races are concerned. If we're smart, we acknowledge our inherent racism and filter our observations accordingly to ensure they are not too tainted. We second-guess and sometimes third-guess ourselves. But we make mistakes. And when we do, we're ashamed.
If we're stupid, however, we refuse to acknowledge our inherent racism. We protest vehemently that we are "tolerant" individuals and dredge up endless examples of pleasant interactions with members of other races as proof positive that that ugly "racist" label doesn't apply here, no sirree. Annie Jacobsen herself claims to be quite the "tolerant" individual, and to prove it she takes great pains to inform us that she was even pleasant to one of the Not!Terrorists before boarding the plane.
But it is this refusal to acknowledge our racism that perpetuates it. After all, if it wasn't racism that led her to believe that fourteen innocent Muslims were undercover terrorists, that must mean that she was justified in her belief. Which, in turn, means that it's not racist to draw negative aspersions about strangers simply because of their race, creed, or color. Which means that it's okay to do it next time as well.
And this is why Annie Jacobsen falls into the "stupid" category of racists. Not because she thought what she thought. But because she refuses to self-filter. More importantly, despite all statements to the contrary, despite the many reassurances from various government agencies, despite concrete proof that these men were who they said they were, she refuses to admit her mistake and acknowledge her shame. "If nineteen terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings," she insists, "couldn't fourteen terrorists learn to play instruments?"
How does one argue with that level of paranoia?
The good news is, if these men really were terrorists on a "dry run" we have nothing to fear from them, because they're certainly the most inept gaggle of bumblers since the Keystone Cops. Fourteen Syrians traveling in a group, post 9/11? Boarding a plane with a truckload of bulky carry-ons? Drawing attention to themselves and one another with frequent trips to the rear of the plane, overt hand gestures, and heavy eye contact? Glaring at a hysterical woman who gave them what she claims was her "friendliest remember-me-we-had-a-nice-exchange-just-a-short-time-ago smile" but undoubtedly came across as a terrified please-don't-kill-me-I'm-a-nice-person-with-a-family grimace?
Nope. No one will suspect a thing.