Vol. 3, No. 1
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion
Charitable Choice and the New Religious
Religious Ironies in East Timor
Jesus, Political Philosopher
Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests
Waiting for the Shoe to Drop
The NCC's Near-Death Experience
On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya
Letters to the Editor
in a Name?:
The Crash of EgyptAir 990
by William K. Piotrowski
Few events are
more likely to produce competitive media frenzies than major airliner crashes. The
elements are dramatic and compelling: empathetic horror, vast loss of life, scenes of
devastation and desolation, desperate searches, and painstaking efforts to reconstruct the
crash and its causes. Theres also a clear "lifecycle" to crash coverage:
reports of the crash, descriptions of extensive efforts to search for survivors, grave
press conferences, reports on the grief of family members, funeral stories, and obsessive
updates on the search for the "black boxes"the flight data and voice
recorders. Then come stories about the contents of the recorders and eerie transcripts of
the last minutes of doomed flight crews.
But the chief competitive prize is the story explaining why investigators think the
plane crashedalmost always a story based on anonymous sources since the formal
process of investigating crashes takes months and often years to produce official
conclusions. So, after EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast
of New England early on the morning of October 31, government officials ritually begged
the media not to rush to judgmentor rather, not to publish the internal gossip of
investigators about the crash. "Youll undoubtedly hear many reports of what
caused the crash of Flight 990. All of these reports will be speculative," the Washington
Post quoted National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall on November 1.
Normally, this is all part of the game and readers are accustomed to "sources
said" stories weighing whether pilot error, bad weather, terrorists, mechanical
problems, or some other factor caused a given crash. But because the flight recorder
contained a cryptic phrase uttered by the Egyptian pilot just before the plane plunged,
the coverage of the Flight 990 crash lurched suddenly into an immense controversy. This
dustup involved U.S. and Egyptian officials, Muslims outraged over what they consider to
be endless defamation in Western media, and the dueling stereotypes conveyed in American
and Egyptian media.
It would have been hard to predict the eventual acrimony based on the first wave of
stories about the crash, which focused on human interest and ecumenical cooperation to
comfort the families of the victims. True to the usual form, first-day stories by Guy
Gugliotta and Lynne Duke in the Washington Post described the assistance offered to
despondent relatives at the Ramada Inn near JFK Airport in New York: "Three airport
chaplains quickly arrived, to be assisted later by five Muslim clerics."
"The relatives of the victims listened to readings from the Koran, words of prayer
from Catholic and Coptic priests and messages of condolence from New York and Egyptian
government officials," echoed a piece by Charisse Jones in USA Today. Most
coverage emphasized the pervasive role of Muslim faith among the families of Egyptian
victims. Drusilla Menaker of the Dallas Morning News quoted Hamdy Abany, who was
searching for his cousins name among the victims, saying, "We accept Gods
will. We just want to know."
The desire to know both the status of the passengers and the cause of the crash fueled
speculation in the news media and the American and Egyptian public. Robert D. McFadden of
the New York Times wrote, "It was unclear what happened: Had an explosion
erupted? Was there a mechanical failure? Was the aircraft even in one piece as it went
down?" On November 2, Chris Burritt of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution
projected a possible scenario, citing the presence of 30 Egyptian military officers aboard
the flight and noting, "Their presence might have increased the risk of terrorism,
particularly from any Muslim fundamentalist groups opposed to Egyptian President Hosni
If American speculation turned first to the prospect of Islamic terrorism, the Egyptian
press was equally drawn to speculation. Charles Sennott cited headlines of Egyptian
newspapers in a Boston Globe piece on November 1. "The front page of Al
Ahram had a headline that read: The Worst Catastrophe in the History of Civil
Aviation: The plane fell in the same place as the TWA and Swissair crashes."
The Al Wafd newspaper carried a story headlined, "The Curse of the
Kennedy Family is Chasing Egyptian planes."
Although often charged with harboring deep anti-Muslim biases, many American
journalists turned willingly to Muslim sources for reactions and analysis in the first
phase of the crash coverage. On November 1, for example, the New York Daily Newss
Tara George quoted Ahmed Hussein, an immigrant interviewed outside a Brooklyn mosque, who
asserted that it was unlikely that the crash was caused by Islamic terrorists because it
occurred during Ragab, a Muslim holy period before Ramadan. "Because of this, I think
it must be mechanical failure. No Muslim would do it now."
However, consideration for Islamic sensibilities began to fade after the flight and
voice data recorders were recovered in mid-November. Stories reported that review of the
data showed no signs of a mechanical malfunction and the voice recorder placed a prayerful
relief copilot, Capt. Gameel el-Batouty, alone at the controls of the plane during the
events precipitating the crash.
Throughout this period, the NTSB and other investigators dribbled out information about
their progress or lack thereof, thus keeping the story alive. And on November 15 the
NTSBs Hall issued a statement that hinted at the political complexity of the
investigation. "We are concentrating our efforts on determining from the
whether or not this investigation is to remain under the leadership of the
NTSB," the Washington Post reported, further suggesting that the FBI might be
Egged on by Halls statement, journalists intensified their search for sources in
the organizations investigating the crash. They found them. On November 17, the Gannett
News Service moved a story attributed to a "senior intelligence official" that
described Batouty as uttering a fragment of a prayer that sounded pretty suspicious to
American ears. "The timing of the prayerbefore the jets autopilot was
disengaged and the plane dived from 33,000 feethas raised suspicions among U.S.
officials that Flight 990 was deliberately brought down."
The American media bit hard on that idea. Peter Grier of the Christian Science
Monitor reported on November 18, "The main piece of evidence pointing toward
deliberate sabotage is that one of the planes pilots, briefly alone in the cockpit,
said a prayer in Arabic just before the autopilot was disengaged and the plane went into a
These stories triggered outrage among Muslims in the United States and in Egypt and
vociferous complaints from the Egyptian government. Muslims defended Batouty stoutly,
often declaring that it is impossible for a Muslim to commit suicide.
Muslim scholars in America and Egypt made the most forceful response, arguing that the
reflex linkage of an Islamic prayer to a criminal act was yet another example of Western
stereotyping of Islamic fundamentalism, and a misreading of Muslim cultural norms. To
them, Batoutys prayer was a commonplace utterance.
In the face of this criticism from plausible experts, most American news organizations
thought carefully about how far they were stretching a small piece of unattributed and
quite possibly meaningless information. And, within days, they back-pedaled noticeably. A
wave of stories appeared asserting that Batoutys prayer might well be harmless.
Laura Brown of the Boston Herald, for example, recounted MIT scholar Nassar
Rabbats interpretation. "The phrases he has heard attributed to Batouty sound
like phrases used frequently in everyday Egyptian speech. The phrase tawakalty
al-Allah, translated as I put my trust in God or I depend on
God, would be uttered by most Egyptians as a matter of course after they had made a
decision, he said."
Many Muslims were particularly incensed that American investigators and news media were
suggesting that Batouty might have committed suicide. On November 24, Mary Rourke of the Los
Angeles Times quoted Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern
California, on the implausibilty of the suicide thesis. "Suicide is a major sin, not
accepted under any circumstance. Muslims believe that death is not an end; it is the
beginning of eternity. It can be spent in hellfire or heaven. To commit suicide is to
begin a life of eternal suffering."
And, indeed, as reporters probed into Batoutys personal life, the relatives and
friends they interviewed offered a picture of a stable, pious family man and then launched
into a bitter critique of Western journalistic practices. Batoutys brother, Walid
Batouty, told Matthew Brelis and Charles Sennott of the Boston Globe that "it
makes us very angry to hear the media saying that a man was praying and therefore he must
be either committing suicide or be a terrorist." Walid offered another possibility
for the crash, saying, "Why arent you focusing on three Boeing airplanes, TWA,
Swissair, and EgyptAir taking off from JFK and crashing." As to the implications of
suicide, Batoutys nephew Sharif was quoted by Eric Lichtblau and John Goldman of the
Los Angeles Times on November 18 saying, "Its against the religion, our
faith, to commit suicide. So if you are going to commit suicide, you dont say,
Please God, help me do it."
Other Egyptian papers took a much more hostile attitude towards the investigation of
the crash and its U.S. coverage. Marco R. della Cava reported on November 19 in USA
Today that "the most popular conspiracy theory making the rounds involves a plot
by the Mossad, Israels secret service, to destroy the Boeing 767 in retaliation for
the United States passing military know-how to the 33 Egyptian soldiers on board."
Another theory della Cava cited was that a "secret supercomputer run by U.S. spy
agencies managed to activate satellites that switched off the jets autopilot."
Mastaga Bakri, editor of Al-Osboa newspaper in Egypt, described this scenario as
"likely," saying, "With the U.S., nothing would surprise me." One of
Bakris headlines concluded, "CIA Touches Black Boxes Before Their
It seems incontestable that competitive pressures encouraged American journalists to
overreach the bounds of prudence in suggesting so forcefully that Batouty may have crashed
the airliner on such scanty and cryptic evidence, and without attribution. On the other
hand, journalists didnt single-handedly create the cycle of leaks and limited
disclosures that characterize airliner crash stories.
Investigators in various of the constellation of organizations that participate in
crash investigations leak tidbits of evidence. Leaks and unattributed conclusions are far
more characteristic of crash coverage than of major criminal investigations. But many
share the blame for the geyser of unattributed claims. The NTSB itself denounces
speculation on the one hand, and conducts interim press conferences and releases
transcripts of voice data recorders on the other.
As to the prayer, the American news media quickly backed off from the story
investigators had fed them, revealing that Muslim sources are now commonplace on newsroom
American journalists should worry less about the charges of anti-Muslim bias in this
particular case. Many Muslim commentators simply argued that it was "impossible"
for Muslims to launch a terrorist attack during Ragab or to commit suicide or murder
because these acts are specifically prohibited in Islam. Thats a kind of special
pleading, arguing that because something is forbidden it cannot happen. It also strains
Furthermore, Batoutys defenders rarely addressed the whole scenario leaked by
investigators. Suspicion apparently turned to Batouty not simply because he uttered a
cryptic, seemingly religious phrase, but because of a four-step pattern: no recorded
mechanical trouble, then Batoutys comment, then the disengagement of the autopilot,
then the plunge into the Atlantic.
Its clear that at least some American investigators havent abandoned the
position that Batouty caused the crash. The Associated Press moved a story on January 21
reporting that "investigators say they are more convinced than ever of their original
theory: The jet was crashed deliberately." David Rising reported that "the
NTSBs working theory remains [that] the plane was sent into a nosedive by relief
co-pilot Gamil El-Batouty." No government officials are cited by name and the story
and most of the elaboration came from a retired TWA pilot and aviation consultant. The
story was then picked up by Agence France Presse and the British defense analysts Janes.
On January 24 came the inevitable counterstroke from the NTSB, a statement from Hall
noting that the board was "disturbed to see again this week unidentified sources were
used as the basis of a news report purporting to have informed knowledge of our work. As
is often the case in these matters, the story was wrong
. There is much that still
needs to be done before a determination of cause can be reached."