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What Does a 99-cent Bic Lighter Tell Us About the Bush War on Terrorism?
On September 22, 2001, just 11 days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Arlington, I had to fly. I had actually wanted to fly on September 11, and in fact had a ticket on the 3:00pm American Airlines flight from LAX to JFK. As we all know, that flight never made it off the ground as hours earlier four California-bound flights, two on American and two on United, were hijacked as part of a coordinated suicide mission to attack the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, DC.
Stranded in Los Angeles, my wife and I (out there for the annual Prime Time Emmy Awards for our series, "The Awful Truth"), were awakened that morning by my wife's mother, calling us from Flint at 6:15 a.m., L.A. time. I answered the phone and heard her say that "New York was under attack, New York is at war." I remember thinking, "So what's new," but she suggested we immediately turn on the TV. I fumbled for the remote and switched on the hotel room TV. And there it was. The twin towers on fire, black smoke billowing upward.
"OK," I thought, "a really bad fire." But then they ran the replay from 15 minutes earlier, of the second plane hitting the south tower. This wasn't an accident. We tried to call our daughter in New York. The phone lines weren't allowing any calls. We tried calling our friend, Joanne Doroshow, who works a few blocks from the towers. Again, the lines were jammed.
A horrible panic started settling inside me. Finally, I reached Joanne's office. A woman answered, frantic. I asked if Joanne was there. "NO!" she shouted. "She's not here! We have to go! Ohmygod!" She dropped the phone and I heard a loud roar, like a train. My wife said, "Look at the TV." I did, and I saw from L.A. what I was listening to over the phone: the collapse of the south tower.
It would be another four hours before we were able to reach our daughter, and seven hours before Joanne calls us, safe inside her apartment (she had ducked into a building just in time as the cloud of debris rained its way down the street).
That night, as we watched the images repeated on the TV, a ticker began running the names of some of the dead who had been on the planes. Along the bottom of the screen came the name, "William Weems." A friend of ours the next morning confirmed that this was, in fact, the same Bill Weems, a line producer from Boston with whom we had recently filmed a batch of humorous TV spots targeting the tobacco companies. Bill was on the Boston-to-L.A. plane. He died as the jet, traveling at 586 miles per hour, slammed into the south tower. He left behind a wife and 7-year old daughter. It was all so unbelievably horrific.
The airports were closed and all planes were now grounded. I found a Hertz dealer who would rent me a mini-van for $1,700 -- and 43 hours later we pulled out of our hotel on the Pacific Ocean and began our 2,990-mile journey home to our apartment in New York City.
Somewhere around Oklahoma City, the airports were all open again, but my wife did not want to ditch the mini-van and get on a plane. So we continued on home for the next few days, the first ever trip each of us had made driving coast to coast. It was, as it turned out, well worth it, as it gave us a chance to gauge the reaction of average citizens, especially as we passed through Bush and Ashcroft country (The internet letters I wrote and read from the road can be found on my website).
By September 22, I had no choice but to get back on a plane. I had been scheduled to give a talk in San Antonio, and so off I went on an American flight out of Newark. At the airport there was a newly, hastily put-together list of all the items that I could NOT bring aboard the plane. The list was long and bizarre. The list of banned items included:
* No guns. (Obviously)
* No knives. (Ditto)
* No boxcutters. (Certainly now justified)
* No toenail clippers. (What?)
* No knitting needles. (Huh?)
* No crotchet hooks. (Now, wait a minute!)
* No sewing needles.
* No mace.
* No leaf blowers. (OK, now it's personal)
* No corkscrews.
* No letter openers.
* No dry ice.
The list went on and on. A lot of the items made good sense. I wasn't quite sure if terrorists also made quilts in their spare time, and I guess I must have missed the terrorist incident where some poor bastards smuggled dry ice aboard a plane (were they trying to keep their Popsicles cold until they ate them and then used the sticks for their attack?).
Frankly, I was a little freaked-out about flying so soon after 9-11 and I guess there was just no way I was going to fly without a weapon for my protection. So I took the New York Yankees-signed baseball that Mayor Giuliani had given me on "TV Nation," put it in a sock, and presto! Whip that baby upside somebody's head, and they're going to take a little nap. Note to budding terrorfuckers: If you try something on a flight I'm on, I'll Clemens ya. That, or the smell from my ratty sock, is going to do you in.
Though I now felt "safe" with my makeshift weapon, as I continued to fly through the fall and winter, I did NOT feel safe being greeted at airport security by weekend warriors from the National Guard holding empty M-16s and looking like they shop in the same "special needs" department at K-Mart which I visit from time to time.
More importantly, though, I kept noticing something strange. The guy in front of me, while emptying his pockets into the little plastic tray to run through the x-ray machine, would take out his butane lighter or matchbook, toss them into the tray, then pick them up on the other side -- in full view of security. At first I thought this was a mistake until I looked at the list of banned items again -- and saw that butane lighters and matchbooks were NOT on the forbidden list.
Then came December 22, 2001. Richard Reid, on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami, attempted to light his shoes on fire, using matches. His shoes, the police said, contained a plastic explosive and, had some passengers and flight attendants not taken quick action to restrain him, he would have been able to blow the entire plane out of the sky. But his lighter would not light the shoes fast enough, and everyone survived.
I was sure after this freakish incident that the lighters and matches would surely be banned. But, as my book tour began in February, there they were, the passengers with their Bic lighters and their books of matches. I asked one security person after another why these people were allowed to bring devices which could start a fire on board the plane, especially after the Reid incident. No one, not a single person in authority or holding an unloaded automatic weapon, could or would give me answer.
My simple question was this: If all smoking is prohibited on all flights, then why does ANYONE need their lighters and matches at 30,000 feet -- while I am up there with them?!
And why is the one device that has been used to try and blow up a plane since 9-11 NOT on the banned list? No one has used toenail clippers to kill anyone on Jet Blue, and no one has been blowing away the leaves in the aisle of the Delta Connection flight to Tupelo.
BUT SOME FRUITCAKE DID USE A BUTANE LIGHTER TO TRY AND KILL 200 PEOPLE ON AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT #63. And this did nothing to force the Bush Administration to do something about it.
I began asking this question in front of audiences on my book tour. And it was on a dark and rainy night in Arlington, Virginia, at the Ollsson's Bookstore a couple miles from the Pentagon that I got my answer. After asking my Bic lighter question in my talk to the audience, I sat down to sign the books for the people in line. A young man walks up to the table, introduces himself, and lowering his voice so no one can hear, tells me the following:
"I work on the Hill. The butane lighters were on the original list prepared by the FAA and sent to the White House for approval. The tobacco industry lobbied the Bush administration to have the lighters and matches removed from the banned list. Their customers (addicts) naturally are desperate to light up as soon as they land, and why should they be punished just so the skies can be safe?
The lighters and matches were removed from the forbidden list.
I was stunned. I knew there had to be some strange reason why this most obvious of items had not been banned. Could the Bush mob be so blatant in their contempt for the public's safety? How could they do this, and at the same time, issue weekly warnings about the "next terrorist threat"? Would they really put Big Tobacco's demands ahead of people's lives?
Yes, of course, the answer has always been YES but not now, not in a time of national crisis, not NOW, so soon after the worst domestic mass murder in U.S. history!
Unless there was no real threat at all.
The hard and difficult questions must be asked: Is the "War on Terrorism" a ruse, a concoction to divert the citizens' attention?
Accept, if you will for just a moment, that as truly despicable as George W. Bush is, he would not be so evil as to help out his buddies in tobacco land that that would be worth suffering through another 9-11. Once you give the man that and for once I am asking you to do just that once you admit that not even he would allow the murder of hundreds or thousands more just so Marlboro addicts can light up outside the terminal, then a whole other door opens and that door, my friends, leads to the Pandora's Box of 9-11, a rotten can of worms that many in the media are afraid to open for fear of where it might lead, of just how deep the stench goes.
What if there is no "terrorist threat?" What if Bush and Co. need, desperately need, that "terrorist threat" more than anything in order to conduct the systematic destruction they have launched against the U.S. constitution and the good people of this country who believe in the freedoms and liberties it guarantees?
Do you want to go there?
I do. I have filed a Freedom of Information Act demand to the FAA, asking that they give to me all documents pertaining to the decisions that were made to allow deadly butane lighters and books of matches on board passenger planes. I am not optimistic about what the results of this will be.
And let's face it it's just one small piece of the puzzle. It is, after all, just a 99-cent Bic lighter. But, friends, I have to tell you, over the years I have found that it is PRECISELY the "little stories" and the "minor details" that contain within them the LARGER truths. Perhaps my quest to find out why the freedom to be able to start a fire on board a plane-full of citizens is more important than yours or my life will be in vain. Or maybe, just maybe, it will be the beginning of the end of this corrupt, banal administration of con artists who shamelessly use the dead of that day in September as the cover to get away with anything.
I think it's time we all stood up and started asking some questions of these individuals. The bottom line: Anyone who would brazenly steal an election and insert themselves into OUR White House with zero mandate from The People is, frankly sadly capable of anything...
Michael Moore has written a number of books including the bestselling 'Stupid White Men', and directed the ascclaimed film 'Bowling for Columbine'. Many of his writings are available on his website www.michaelmoore.com/.
This piece is also available online at the anti-copyright library, textz.com.