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Strike up the band

By Michelle Malkin  •  July 20, 2004 05:09 PM

The New York Times ran a piece today by Joe Sharkey purporting to report on “What Really Happened” on Flight 327 with the 14 Syrian passengers observed by writer Annie Jacobsen. The piece skews toward the Nothing Happened camp and concludes with a quote from Federal Air Marshal spokesman Dave Adams saying: “They gave their little performance in the casino and two days later they flew out on a JetBlue flight from Long Beach to New York.”

One reader doesn’t buy the band story. Mark Powelson, a former PBS executive and San Francisco magazine editor familiar with the world music scene, cc’ed me a copy of his letter to the Times’ Joe Sharkey. He makes some interesting points, especially with regard to the lack of any complaints by the ethnic grievance whiners who usually come out of the woodwork when they’ve been unfairly harrassed. Here’s the letter in full. Would love to hear Joe Sharkey’s response:

Something still doesn’t add up. There are indeed a few–but only a few–Syrian musicians and groups of the kind of reputation in the world music world that give them the opportunity for actual music tours…the big WOMAD fest last year bemoaned the fact that the large group called Whirling Dervishes from Syria couldn’t get travel visa’s ok’ed in time for the festival. But it’s hard to name or find a large ensemble (ten or more) Syrian group with a rep big enough for someone to pay their travelling $$ beyond Whirling Dervishes.

And there are a number of noted and recorded individual artists including Sabah Fakhri, who is also in Syria’s great Sufi tradition. Having tried a couple of years ago to develop a PBS program dealing with world music, I can tell you that it is always the case that when a ‘world music’ group travels, they’re doing a concert tour with as many stops as possible. (No self-respecting Middle Eastern group with any reputation would pass through NY without playing in Brooklyn, for example).

I don’t think you’ll ever hear of a case of a ‘mid level’ or lower group flying to one city for a one or two day stint…at an LA area Indian casino??? It would have made sense if the group had played in Detroit with that city’s very large Arab American community…but searching the Detroit News on Lexis-Nexis (and the Detroit News has a very very extensive arts/entertainment calendar), I see no mention at all of any Syrian or “Damascus” based group performing over the past 60 days. But why ‘no name’, for heaven’s sake?

But since you yourself were not able to ‘report’ your way to the actual name of the group…I don’t think your column can accurately be called a “what really happened” story.

If this were some terrible case of harrassment in the nation’s entertainment capital, Los Angeles, it is extremely odd that none of the myriad of activist-oriented groups involved in world music heard about the fracas. (You should read the kind of heat that the visa problems that blocked groups from last year’s WOMAD triggered.) This is not a media-shy community. In fact, the silence in this respect is stunning, even if it is a case of Sherlock Holmes ‘dog that did not bark.’ Musical groups touring from Cuba and other countries that have faced perceived excessive scrutiny have ALWAYS had US-based supporters who have gone to the media…including the Times. The Arab American community is relatively tightly knit and it would be very odd that a popular music group would be subjected to apparently prolonged “grilling” with any of the major (and again hardly silent) Arab American civil rights organizations speaking out, and not just in response to a call from the Times.

A telling fact against the ‘paranoia’ theory may be the very fact (if it is a fact) that the gentlemen were carrying Syrian passports. It is very difficult for Syrian passport holders to get travel visa’s to the U.S. And a Syrian passport is not a very good way to travel clandestinely. Also, the 14 person group is larger than what we would see in a typical ‘training’ excercise…based on what we’ve seen in “cell based” organizations over many decades.

On the other hand, the fact that none of the names shows up on a ‘watch list’ means only that. Every candid intelligence agency estimate whether from the US, the Brits, the Israeli’s, gives very large estimates of both trained terrorists not yet ‘activated’ as well as “sleepers.” (U.S. intel from inside Syria would make our inside intel of pre-war Iraq look positively rich. At least in Iraq the CIA had long, intimate involvement with the Kurds in the north and to a lesser extent the anti-Sadaam regions in the south. Police state Syria is perhaps one of the most impervious nation’s on earth to US intelligence beyond ‘elint’)

But the “racial profiling” aspect is a complete canard. You are ‘profiled’ every time you apply for a credit card or a mortgage, you ‘profile’ people you invite to an intimate dinner party or any time you arrange a blind date. FBI ‘profilers’ are celebrated on national tv every time a major criminal case is being investigated. Profiling is simply a formal or informal use of statistics drawn from the past in an effort to predict the future. If 19 out of 19 men on September 11th were between 20 and 40 and of Arabic extraction, that’s fact-based profiling and for better or worse, it passes for a science, that is, it is a body of knowledge and experience proven useful in the real world and based on verifiable principles and suppositions. It’s time we just bit the bullet on that unhappy fact.

(We are all reminded, of course, of actor James Woods perception of very disturbing behavior of 4 young men of ‘middle eastern appearance’ on the American Airlines Boston to LA flight on the morning of August 1, 2001. No action taken, of course, because no crime committed. )

Perhaps someone will get to the bottom of this one, but whoever wrote the ‘what really happened’ headline to your piece was stretching it a bit.

Mark Powelson

Update: Many people have raised the possibility that the band was Kulna Sawa. A representative passes along the following message (also sent to Power Line):

I am Manager of the Kulna Sawa/Together Concert for Peace Tour which will take place in November. The group is currently in Syria and is not in any way involved with the recent incident referred to on your web site. The Concert for Peace Tour is designed specificially to counter this kind of misunderstanding which is so prevalent today in the United States.

Mel Lehman
Concert for Peace Tour
New York City

Well, that clears things up. Sort of. Not.

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