Under the headline "Political correctness vs. passenger safety?" an August 5 Washington Times editorial claimed that federal limits on who can be singled out for heightened airline security measures "discourage[s] the use of common sense in deciding who should be permitted to board a plane." The paper's apparent endorsement of racial profiling, however, relies on inflammatory allegations made on July 13 in the online magazine WomensWallStreet -- allegations that were discredited by the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS).
In her story for WomensWallStreet, titled "Terror in the Skies, Again?" freelance writer Annie Jacobsen detailed an encounter she had on June 29 aboard a Northwest Airlines flight with "14 Middle Eastern men," six of whom were "carrying blue passports with Arabic writing." Jacobsen recounted the men's erratic behavior including how, during the flight, "[o]ne by one, they went into the two lavatories" and how, "representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the Federal Air Marshals (FAM), and the Transportation Security Association (TSA) met our plane as it landed" in Los Angeles. Jacobsen's tale ends with a question to her readers: "[I]f 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?"
While The Washington Times cited Jacobsen's anecdote as evidence of the need for renewed "debate on whether political correctness is putting the traveling public in jeopardy," the editorial neglected to disclose the story's ultimate resolution. As the The New York Times reported July 20, FAMS spokesman Dave Adams rejected Jacobsen's characterization of the men -- who were musicians on their way to perform at a casino -- as terrorists:
''We interviewed all 14 of these individuals,'' Mr. Adams said. ''They were members of a Syrian band'' traveling to a gig at a casino near Los Angeles, he said, adding that their names were run through ''every possible'' data bank and terrorist watch list. ''They were scrubbed. Nothing came back.''
In a follow-up article one week later, on July 27, The New York Times addressed many of Jacobsen's charges as possible examples of cultural misunderstanding, quoting a Syrian musician from another band: "Sometimes, fear can cause you to look at things the way you want to believe them to be." Most recently, on August 3, The New York Times specifically rebutted Jacobsen's charge that, as the plane descended for landing, several of the musicians aboard the flight "stood up -- in unison -- and walked to the front and back lavatories" -- quoting FAMS spokesman Adams again: "So there was absolutely no sudden move by the men on final approach? 'None,' Adams said."