Norman Mailer and the Box Cutters


In the dream, Jill and I are living in a ramshackle, three-story house in a nameless, faceless city. The Gothic architecture of the house, washed in soft brown and yellow hues, suggests it was built in a pre-industrial era. On the first floor is the living room, kitchen, and dining area. The second floor, accessed by a creaky flight of wooden stairs, houses the bedrooms and study areas. And on the third floor is a tastefully appointed loft where famous writers like to come for a sabbatical.

The backstory in this dream - as we say in Hollywood - is that somehow Jill and I have stolen $800 from our bank. In the dream, as in reality, we badly need the money but we are afraid to spend it. A good thing, too, because the morning newspaper announces the theft and names me in particular as a "person of interest" that the police would like to have a word with.

We're in a quandary, and who better to help us out of the muddy mess than our current third floor guest, Norman Mailer. I make my way up the stairs, push back the multi-colored tie-dye curtain that stands in for a door, and find the irascible author kicked back on a bed, his luggage in the corner, still unpacked.

" Norman , what you would do if --"

He cuts me off with a brisk wave of his hand. "I'm resting," he growls, "I didn't come here for that."

Norman Mailer thinks I want to talk shop. I quickly inform him that I have come for sage advice, not a writing tips seminar. I explain the situation.

"If I return the money, will I still go to jail? It's under $1,000."

Norman rubs his unshaven chin, lifts his face to the dark ceiling. "I think it's a three-year jail term and/or a $5,000 fine."

Norman picks up the telephone and dials. "I can get you the money, maybe you can get off with just the fine. How about I get you $25,000?" He thinks for another beat and then suggests that perhaps $50,000 would be a better amount.

When Jill arrives home, I tell her of our famous houseguest's generosity, but we worry over hastily phoning the police to tell them that we are ready to make good on our crime because there's always the possibility that Norman's just blowing smoke up our ass and won't actually come through with the 50 grand.

That's pretty much where the dream ended, and the harsh rays of sunlight beat feet through the balcony door and urged me out of bed.

I can offer an interpretation of this dream. In fact, I can offer a myriad of thoughts on the meaning and symbolism of this nocturnal mind wandering. But to do so, I would be committing a grievous crime upon the reader because the reader is not armed with the pertinent facts. The reader does not know all the exhaustive details of my life and career that culminated to form this dream. How could the reader trust that my interpretation was fact and not an evasive fallacy?

Case in point: the morning after the Norman Mailer dream, I read the partial transcript, released by the 9-11 Commission this week, of Flight Attendant Betty Ong's call to an American Airlines operations desk on an emergency line on September 11, 2001 . Betty was on Flight 11, the first plane to slam into the World Trade Canter:

OPERATIONS: What's the number of your seat? ONG: OK. I'm in the jump seat right now. That's 3R. Q: What is your name? A: My name is Betty Ong. I'm Number 3 on Flight 11. Q: OK. A: And the cockpit is not answering their phone. There's somebody stabbed in business class, and we can't breathe in business. Um, I think there is some Mace or something. We can't breathe. I don't know, but I think we're getting hijacked. Q: Can you describe the person, that you said someone is shot in business? A: I'm sitting in the back. Somebody's coming back from business. If you can hold on for one second here, they're coming back. Our Number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who. We can't even get up to business class right now because nobody can breathe. Uhhh, our number one is stabbed right now. (garbled) Our Number 5, our first class passenger, er, our first class galley flight attendant and our purser have been stabbed. And we can't get into the cockpit. The door won't open. Q: This is operations. What flight number are we talking about? Q: At this point we are talking about Flight 12. Q: Flight 12. OK. A: No, we're on Flight 11 right now. This is Flight 11. Q: This is Flight 11. I'm sorry, Nadine. A: Boston to Los Angeles . Q: Yes. A: Our Number 1 has been stabbed, and our 5 has been stabbed. Q: Can anybody get up to the cockpit? Can anyone get up to the cockpit? A: We can't even get into the cockpit. We don't know who's up there. (Dial tone)

What's missing from Betty's account? An interpretation of Betty's waking nightmare that was spoon-fed to the public by a compliant media for weeks and months on end after the tragic events unfolded. What is missing, plain and simple, are two words: box cutters.

The cabin has apparently been maced, Betty calmly explains. And flight attendants have been stabbed. Stabbed. Not sliced, which would be the result from an attack by someone wielding a box cutter.

There has never been one shred of evidence to support the contention that the 9-11 hijackers were armed with box cutters. This is a myth that the media reported as fact, constantly regurgitating the question, "How could 19 hijackers armed with box cutters create such a tragedy?"

A box cutter, you understand, was an object that could easily be carried aboard a commercial airliner in a pre-9-11 world. But to imply that the hijackers were carrying knives ("Our number one has been stabbed, and our five has been stabbed") or other weaponry that made it past the security screening is to open the airlines up to a whole world of liability.

And so the box cutter myth was created, carried on by Ashcroft and Rumsfeld in various press interviews despite no evidence to support the thought.

Box cutters. An interpretation of a nightmare that was sold as valid until Betty Ong's long-gone voice stepped out of the ether and offered her own rendering of the hazy tableau.

And did I mention that I don't even like Norman Mailer?

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Rodger Jacobs's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Rodger Jacobs is a screenwriter, freelance journalist, and an award-winning writer and producer of feature documentaries.