November 15, 1999
(updated Nov. 16, 1999)


The response of U.S. government officials to the downing of EgyptAir flight 990 near Nantucket was bizarre, to say the least: ""There's no indication of a crime but if it turns out to be," said an FBI spokesman, "we'll solve it and bring those responsible to the bar of justice." No indication of a crime? A plane with 30 U.S.-trained Egyptian military personnel, including three high-ranking officers, takes off from Kennedy Airport on October 31 – a few days after the UN announces economic sanctions against the Taliban government of Afghanistan, and Islamic radicals associated with Osama bin Laden issue terrorist threats. The plane reaches cruising altitude somewhere near Nantucket, Massachusetts, with no technical glitches – and then suddenly the engines are shut down, the autopilot disengages, and the plane goes into a straight-down nosedive. Then it starts to ascend again, as if there had been a struggle for control in the cockpit, with the good guys gaining the upper hand. But only temporarily: according to the data decoded from the recovered black box, the plane took another abrupt turn downward; this time, it did not turn back. All 217 passengers were killed. While headlines about the crash dominated the news for days afterward, buried in the back pages was a very likely cause of the front page disaster: it was reported that thousands of Muslims in southern Afghanistan demonstrated against the sanctions. Less than a week later, the US embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, was attacked by Taliban-inspired Muslim radicals. Earth to US government: Hel-lo.


But it's no use: these guys just do not want to admit the depressing fact that terrorism is the most likely scenario. For then the American people would begin to ask: why? After billions in foreign aid, "humanitarian" assistance, economic aid, medical aid, and every other kind of aid extended to the peoples of the world, and especially in the Middle East, why has the United States become the target of choice? They might even begin to ask uncomfortable questions about US foreign policy, such as: why are we meddling in affairs that are absolutely none of our business, such as getting dragged into brokering the volatile Israeli-Arab "peace process"? Why are we imposing crippling economic sanctions on yet another Middle Eastern country – haven't we killed enough people in nearby Iraq? (The total is now at 1.5 million, primarily the elderly and children.)


Instead of risking the possibility of an authentic foreign policy debate, the strategy of this administration is to deny everything. Rather than handing the matter over to the FBI, jurisdiction over the investigation was given to the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) – an administrative sleight-of-hand that ignored both the facts and the context in which they occurred. The whole "spin" of the investigation was exemplified by the comments of one law enforcement official, who said:

"We are looking at the entire crew ... looking at the passengers ... all aspects of what could be involved in this. That includes financial problems and personal situations of those on board. There is not a single thing to indicate a blast or criminal activity. We are looking at various scenarios involving people in the cockpit."


Isn't it a little tacky to immediately start blaming the victims? It is nothing short of bizarre to focus on whatever "financial problems and personal situations" those on board may have had, especially in the context of international events, as related above. Are we now to be subjected to endless stories about the failed marriages, bankruptcies, and sordid affairs of the deceased? Naturally, this administration would think nothing of putting grieving families through endless torture while studiously avoiding any use of the word "terrorism." But they may not be able to avoid it much longer.


The voice recorder was recovered shortly after the black box was found: the latter revealed that the engines had been shut off, and the autopilot had been disengaged. As one veteran pilot put it in an Associated Press report: "Someone on that airplane was trying to make that airplane crash and they succeeded." One persistent rumor is that the pilot may have committed suicide, but his family is already denying this: Prior to the flight, his wife reports that he was "jolly, as usual." This is a man intent on suicide? As the pilot's brother argued: "He was not alone in that cockpit. Would the others have just watched as he committed suicide?" With the voice recordings, recovered late Saturday night, presumably available by the time you read this, the issue of what happened in that cockpit could well be settled. As I put this column to bed, Matt Drudge is reporting that government officials "now suspect criminal activity in flight #990" and that the "FBI [is] set to move in." Apparently, a top level White House meeting has been called "after new data yields clues." That this administration hasn't got a clue has long been apparent. This cluelessness was underscored by the news, a few hours after the initial reports, that the NTSB is now denying that the recordings provide any conclusive evidence of criminal activity, including terrorist activity. There was no sign of a fight among the crew, but also, so they say, no evidence of anything other than some unspecified "problem" which seems to escalate in the moments before the tape ends. Of course, this could easily point to a terrorist attack – but the administration is still shying away from the "t"-word.


Whatever the outcome, the reign of terror that we all live under is certain to continue – with the cloud of terrorism hanging over us at every airport, over every train wreck and airplane disaster, darkening our lives. When it was discovered that birds in the New York area were carrying an exotic bug known to occur naturally only in the upper Nile valley, and dozens were felled by a mysterious ailment, the rumor that it was a terrorist attack did not seem at all unreasonable. No possible route of entry into this country was ever established, nor was the matter pursued much further, at least publicly.


And questions still haunt us about the mysterious downing of TWA flight 800. As Reed Irvine and Cliff Kincaid point out, the government's official line that it was an accident is predicated on the theory that the fuel tanks exploded. But, they point out, this is just a theory, and one missing a key ingredient: the "government's forty-million-dollar probe of the TWA crash has failed to find an ignition source that could have caused the fuel tank to explode." Oh, but this is a "conspiracy theory," and therefore outside the realm of rational discussion: the government has already issued its official report, and that is that. The issue is settled for all time, and it's time to move on to the next mysterious aerial disaster. As the Mad Hatter said to Alice: "Curiouser and curiouser!"


In the name of the fight against "terrorism," the U.S. launched a terrorist attack of its own against a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan; it was later proved that the target had nothing to do with terrorism. This was acknowledged even by lower level administration officials, who leaked a story to the New York Times that merely confirmed the obvious: the Sudan bombing was a wanton act of destruction, perhaps a diversion away from Monica-gate, or, even worse, an act of pure muscle-flexing intimidation. Now, once again, the US is embarked on a similar mission, with a similar pretext: capturing Osama bin Laden. Afghanistan, a hotbed of pan-Islamic radicalism, has been targeted by the UN, and the US is determined to move into the area in a big way. With the signing of a pact binding Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Georgia to facilitate the building of an oil pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan, and Clinton's triumphal tour of the region, the geostrategic meaning of the crusade against the Taliban is readily apparent – especially to the Russian general staff. The scramble to control the source of much of the earth's future oil supply is on, and no one believes that guff about Osama bin Laden.


If only the US had held on to Osama once they had him, as they did during the Afghan war against the Soviets. Back then, Osama and his Islamic Jihaders were our friends, not our enemies: instead of hunting them down, we were arming and training them. Osama's sudden rise to the top of the terror charts is the Frankenstein story reenacted in the foreign policy realm – a tragedy, rooted in hubris, that ends in death.


The Islamic Brotherhood and other radical groups, ruthlessly suppressed by the Egyptian government, are implacable foes of unelected Egyptian "President" Hosni Mubarak, who maintains his iron rule with the help of billions of dollars per year in US military and economic aid. No one would be very surprised to discover that Egypt's Islamic underground is behind this incident. The Egyptian government is second only to Israel when it comes to enjoying the benefits of US largess; yet the Mubarak regime has declared war on large portions of the Egyptian citizenry, including not only Muslims but also the Christian Copts, one of the most ancient branches of Christianity. While everybody talks about aid to Israel, which is rightly scrutinized as it come up each year before Congress, how come we never hear about the billions we throw at Egypt?


Naturally, the people of Egypt never see a dime of this loot. It is all, inevitably, siphoned off to the Egyptian elites, whose job it is to enforce Washington's will in the region. The response of ordinary Egyptians is not hard to fathom: as their oppressors grow fat feeding at the US trough, the people are radicalized and Islamic groups rapidly gain mass influence. Osama bin Laden is a terrorist: in the Arab "street," however, he is a hero, the symbol of resistance to arrogant Western infidels intent on plundering the Middle East and polluting traditional culture. In the era of nationalism and civilizational conflict, we have taken up a struggle which we have no hope of winning: it is like the advisors to old King Canute, who thought their ruler could command the tides not to come in. They were quickly disabused of this notion, and so will the rulers of the US be if they continue on their mad course.


If terrorism can be likened, at least in the case of Osama bin Laden and his ilk, to a Frankenstein monster, then we all remember how that story ended – with the death not only of the monster, but also of its creator.


If the downing of EgyptAir flight 990 turns out to be a terrorist act, it won't be long before the cry for revenge will go up. The impulse to strike out, however strong, must be resisted, for it will merely create the conditions for a perpetual terrorist war waged against the American people. With the threat of terrorism looming over us, Americans will begin to learn the high price of empire. My guess, and my hope, is that they will not be willing to pay such a high toll, at least not for long. Will we become prisoners in the heartland of the World's Sole Superpower? Forced to live in constant anxiety – did you hear about that big accident? Gee, I wonder if it was an accident?! – Americans will begin to ask questions. Is it really worth it to control the Middle East, in order to protect the Rockefeller oil empire: do we really want to live, indefinitely, in the shadow of death? What are the principles that inform US policy?


These questions will lead to others, which will lead directly to – Not that we have all the answers. What we do have, however, is a good deal of the information that can lead you to your own answers. Whatever the ultimate answer to the growing problem of terrorism, it must be preceded by the following realization: the American people cannot and will not live in terror just so our rulers can flaunt their arrogance on a global scale. If the downing of EgyptAir flight 990 is an act of terrorism, there ought to be hell to pay – not in Afghanistan, but right here in the good old USA. For as the war in Kosovo and the martyrdom of Iraq have made all too clear, the world capital of terrorism is not the mountain fastness of Osama bin Laden, but the imperial city of Washington D.C.


The feds reversed their position in less than 24 hours, with Jim Hall, the head of the NTSB, at first hinting and then announcing that he would be handing over the matter to the FBI. By way of explaining the long period of hedging and delay, Hall complained that the tape is ''almost entirely in a foreign language.'' Duh! What language would anyone expect the employees of EgyptAir to speak – Etruscan? This one may get the Lame Excuse of the Month Award, if not for the whole year: not since the CIA blamed the lack of up-to-date maps for the bombing of Belgrade's Chinese embassy has a government agency lied so openly and blatantly.


The idea that the federal government lacks translators to review the voice recording is laughable – for those whose sense of humor is definitely on the mordant side. You can be sure that the feds know what is on that recording, and are even now deciding how and when to tell the rest of us. More ominously, they are deciding what action to take in response to what is clearly a terrorist attack. Don't be surprised to see a sudden US military strike against the forces of Osama bin Laden – or individuals and groups described as such – and possibly a full-scale assault on Afghanistan. Stayed logged on to for fast-breaking developments. And fasten your seatbelts – we're in for a bumpy ride.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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