Spring 2000, Vol. 3, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 1

Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion

Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center

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


What’s 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. There’s 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 crashed—almost 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 judgment—or rather, not to publish the internal gossip of investigators about the crash. "You’ll 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 cousin’s name among the victims, saying, "We accept God’s 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 Mubarak.

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 Waf’d 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 News’s 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 NTSB’s Hall issued a statement that hinted at the political complexity of the investigation. "We are concentrating our efforts on determining from the evidence…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 brought in.

Egged on by Hall’s 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 prayer—before the jet’s autopilot was disengaged and the plane dived from 33,000 feet—has 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 plane’s pilots, briefly alone in the cockpit, said a prayer in Arabic just before the autopilot was disengaged and the plane went into a dive."

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, Batouty’s 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 Batouty’s prayer might well be harmless. Laura Brown of the Boston Herald, for example, recounted MIT scholar Nassar Rabbat’s 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 Batouty’s 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. Batouty’s 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 aren’t you focusing on three Boeing airplanes, TWA, Swissair, and EgyptAir taking off from JFK and crashing." As to the implications of suicide, Batouty’s nephew Sharif was quoted by Eric Lichtblau and John Goldman of the Los Angeles Times on November 18 saying, "It’s against the religion, our faith, to commit suicide. So if you are going to commit suicide, you don’t 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, Israel’s 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 jet’s 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 Bakri’s headlines concluded, "CIA Touches Black Boxes Before Their Release."

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 didn’t 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 Rolodexes.

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. That’s a kind of special pleading, arguing that because something is forbidden it cannot happen. It also strains credulity.

Furthermore, Batouty’s 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 Batouty’s comment, then the disengagement of the autopilot, then the plunge into the Atlantic.

It’s clear that at least some American investigators haven’t 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 NTSB’s 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’ Jane’s.

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."