The Onion was 1 year early with its airplane terrorism story

Enter a portal to the year 2000 with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Robert Altman, "Survivor" and photography tips that tend to involve actual film.

Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from exactly 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit Sept. 13, 2000.

The Onion is justifiably famous for its post-9/11 issue, which we’ll hopefully all get to revisit next year here. But today we’re looking at 363 days before 9/11, when a story about airplane terrorism was also on The Onion’s mind — and it reveals a lot of our pre-9/11 culture.

We’ll also look at a couple classic Onion tropes today:

  1. Straightforward news stories twisted by one small detail

  2. Local minutiae described like a national crisis

There’s also a lot of “hey, it’s 2000!” pop culture references. Let’s get into it!

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What issue is this?

This was Vol. 36, Issue 32, the 31st published Onion issue of the 2000s and the 30th issue of new content. Here’s what the website looked like in 2000, 2010 and today.

The 2020 page doesn’t have “Seemingly Shy Woman Really Just Stuck-Up, Friends Say” or the print-only headline “Wife In Lingerie At Least Gets Points For Trying.”

What was the top story, and other impressions?

Terrorist Extremely Annoyed By Delayed Flightmight appear like a prescient Onion story that hints at 9/11, what with its tale of a Muslim terrorist traveling from the Middle East to attack the U.S. through its poorly secured airports.

But rest assured, The Onion did not predict 9/11.

Yes, there are coincidences in the story, which is also sharp writing that combines the two biggest complaints about flying — delays and the plane blowing up. But strong writing doesn’t equate predictive power.

In short, this story is not a prediction because it has the wrong cities, fails to anticipate the multiple flights hijacked on 9/11 and has the terrorist deploy a passenger-plane bombing rather than using planes themselves as the weapon. Most notably, the protagonist is not from Saudi Arabia or sent by Bin Laden (who was featured by The Onion in 2000) but is from Hamas, a group known for many things but not large-scale attacks outside its region.

Enough about that. Why does this story work as satire and as a marker of 2000 culture? First is the relative absence of airport security, especially considering the phalanx we face today. The would-be terrorist Nidal Hanani simply walks in with his explosives in a duffel bag, and his biggest worry is possibly having to check the bag, not getting discovered by the law.

The other major thing The Onion gets right is the precise, familiar detail of what airports are like, especially back then but also now.

The story illustrates the personal frustration felt when flights are delayed or cancelled, especially when airport staff are sympathetic but unable to do much. Hanani ends up browsing the gift shop, sitting at the Burger King and eating a meal from the Pizza Hut.

It’s no wonder Hanani, by the end of the story, might be more motivated to punish United Airlines’ corporate overlords than to strike at the infidels of the West:

"Upon my death, be it 6 p.m. or 9:30 or midnight, I know I shall be rewarded manifold for my stalwartness," Hanani said. "But try my patience, this incompetent airline does. On the Day of Judgment, may United's employees and those of its subsidiaries be condemned to the pits of Hell for all eternity."

I also noticed that The Onion has Hanani phrase many of his quotes like Yoda (“But try my patience, this incompetent airline does” and “Screwed up, this United is”). I don’t know what that’s about.

Changing 1 thing to make Congress sillier than it normally is

Here in 2020, we’ve been living through the coronavirus, forest fires and hurricanes lately, and so it’s tempting to examine Congress Allocates Some Serious Do-Re-Mi To Drought Relief for its policy aspects — notably, both parties eager to craft a bailout bill.

Certainly, disaster relief has become politicized like anything else, as we saw after hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Maria. This story would be less believable today! But that wasn’t generally the case in 2000 (let me know if I’m wrong!).

Regardless, what The Onion does so well here is its now-familiar trope of writing straightforward D.C. politics stories, but changing one thing to make it wacky satire. (The terrorist story does this, too, albeit with a different tone.)

What’s that one thing here? Well, it’s using every ridiculous slang phase for “money,” especially with the quotes of real-life politicians:

"Loot, coin, shekels, cabbage, clams, scratch, ducats, benjamins, dead presidents — whatever you call it, one thing's for sure: This is the real stuff, all right," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

Maybe I like this too much, but I can’t resist an Onion story that hews so closely to what could be a real-life article, then makes it absolutely silly.

There’s also a photo of a wheelbarrow filled with cash.

I should note: We see this satire approach a lot with The Onion, and it’s simple. But don’t confuse “simple” with “easy.” This is the “easy to learn, difficult to master” type of satire that sets The Onion apart.

Bagel shop’s business-card scandal

Want another example of what I mean by The Onion’s mastery of simple satirical approaches? Business-Card Drawing For Free Sandwich Mired In Scandalapplies The Onion’s version of investigative journalism to an exceedingly small-time matter that every reader can easily picture.

We start with a bagel shop’s fishbowl for business cards. Now The Onion can get weird.

At this Einstein Bagels, employees are cheating, customers are lying, and the bowl is being tampered with. People are paranoid, but they aren’t wrong.

Pruitt and fellow employee Debi Richards, 21, admitted to hand-picking as many as four sandwich winners. Among them was Vince Neff.

"It said on [Neff's] card that he was the owner of a janitorial-supply store," said Richards, wiping down a table. "We thought it'd be cool to see him win a free sandwich instead of one of those lawyer or business-guy assholes who come in here for lunch all the time."

Like so many workplace conversations, we have freelancers and independent contractors complaining that the system is against them:

"Why should I not get a chance to win a free sandwich, just because I don't have a business card?" customer and self-employed watercolor artist Diane Maurer said. "I feel like I'm being punished for not working in a corporate office."

Not only that, but it’s the 2nd giveaway scandal this Einstein Bagels has suffered in recent years, with a “free coffee” card falling victim to hole-punching scandals.

Try to enjoy the story at the surface level, and don’t think too much about whether every human being becomes corrupt and conniving at the slightest opportunity.

Other links you might enjoy

I wanted to focus on those 3 stories this week, since they cover so much ground about what The Onion does. But this issue from 20 years ago today had a lot to offer:

Were the infographics good?

I wanted to dislike Who's Pickling Our Beets?but this is actually one of my favorites in weeks. I did not expect to laugh at “That big beetery over on Fifth and Main,” but try saying it aloud to someone.

“For reasons too elaborate to explain, Mandy Patinkin” is especially delightful if you know how mercurial the actor is.

New Olympic Sportsis lazier, and maybe most notable for hyphenating the word “web-site.”

We also have Amateur-Photography Tips,” which follows my golden rule for Onion infographics — a few jokes won’t land, so include as many as possible.

What’s interesting is this article has some outdated stuff, especially around the need to use film, and then it also has this joke that fits in perfectly with Instagram:

Dogs wearing funny hats always make for a powerful artistic statement.

What columnists ran?

The Onion this week had four stories about elections, two involving George W. Bush and Al Gore, but it also featured Onion editor emeritus T. Herman Zweibel’s bizarro world Of Presidents And Precocity,” in which he describes elections of yesteryear:

During our periodic visits to Washington, my father would take me to the public beheadings of the president's political opponents on the lawn of the Executive-Mansion. One could barely negotiate the steps of the Capitol, so slick with blood were they! Voting was virtually an erotic pleasure: As you slipped your dozen or so ballots into the ballot-box, you felt confident knowing that you had chosen the greater of two evils.

Your mileage may vary, but give Zweibel credit for the best description of Bush and Gore during all of 2000:

The Republican looks like he still requires the services of a wet-nurse, and the Democrat resembles a large pudding.

(Also, Zweibel visits his son, who is in his laboratory “welding sheets of metal with white-hot beams that shot from his eyes.”)

We get a rare treat of a celebrity guest columnist this week, and it’s Sarah Michelle Gellar of “Buffy,” with Do I Look Fat In This Motion Picture?Now, this feels dated in several ways, but it does capture how harsh we are about celebrities’ looks (and, one suspects, how they often treat themselves).

Gellar’s insecurity leads her to lash out at “Bring It On” star Kirsten Dunst:

Fuck Kirsten and her stupid hit cheerleader movie. I could have had that part if I wanted it.


Speaking of Hollywood, my favorite Onion columnist, Jackie Harvey, is back with Monkey Baby For Material Mom? the title of which is apparently is about Madonna’s real-life 2nd child.

Harvey’s best traits are how he treats everything like an “Access Hollywood” story and how he is obsessed with show business but can’t quite get the details right, as we saw in his last column.

Here, Harvey is again calling Eminem “M&M,” for instance. And there’s a ton of 20-year-old pop culture that no one cares about today, like “Flashdance” and “Basic Instinct” screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (spelled “Estherhouse”), a long paragraph about who he rooted for in the first “Survivor,” his disappointment with “Coyote Ugly,” and how he once had a falling out with his roommate — just like Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres!

He’s also got non sequiturs about how much he sleeps, Segways (“those little metal scooters”), a Marvel film about the Yancy Street Gang, and the ill-fated Talk magazine.

My favorite part of this column, however, is where he mangles Gloria Steinem’s CV and only refers to her husband by his Hollywood connection. Classic Jackie Harvey:

Item! The Ms. is a Mrs.! That's right, aging beauty Gloria Steinem has tied the knot with the guy from American Psycho's dad. I think that's just terrific. It took a big person to speak out against marriage in Gloria's heyday, and an even bigger person to eat crow and get married, after all. And she's marrying into Hollywood royalty. Who could resist the bright lights of Hollywood?

What real-life events/people were mentioned?

Ken Calvert. George W. Bush. Al Gore. John Hagelin. Sarah Michelle Gellar. Kirsten Dunst. Freddie Prinze Jr. Lisa Schwarzbaum. Jennifer Love Hewitt. Reese Witherspoon. Alicia Silverstone. Copperheads. Robert Altman. Stanley Kubrick. John Cassavetes. Martin Scorsese. Colonel Sanders. Dennis Hastert. Max Baucus. Trent Lott. Thad Cochran. June Carter Cash. Mandy Patinkin. Mary. Madonna. Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts. George Clooney. Jennifer Lopez. Kelsey Grammer. LeAnn Rimes. Sharon Stone. Anne Heche. Ellen DeGeneres. Eminem. Kate Hudson. Richard Hatch. Kelly Wiglesworth. Greg Buis. Susan Hawk. Joe Eszterhas. Gloria Steinem. David Bale. Yancy Street Gang. The Thing.

Calvert, star of the C-SPAN original movie “Quorum Call: The H.R.1277 Story,” was and remains a congressman from California.

3-time Natural Law Party presidential candidate Hagelin, a leading transcendental meditation figure, is mentioned in The Debate Debate.”

Prinze, Hewitt, Witherspoon, Silverstone and film critic Schwarzbaum are mentioned in Gellar’s column Do I Look Fat In This Motion Picture?

The Copperheads, called “Copper-heads” in Of Presidents And Precocitywere a faction of loyalist but anti-war Democrats during the Civil War.

Kubrick, Cassavetes, Scorsese and KFC mascot Colonel Sanders are mentioned in Every Single Thing Reminds Altman Buff Of Altman Film.”

Hastert, Baucus and Lott were all elected officials mentioned in “Congress Allocates Some Serious Do-Re-Mi To Drought Relief.”

Cash and Jesus’ mother, Mary, through her title Our Lady of Peace, are mentioned in Who's Pickling Our Beets?

Everyone from Madonna onward is in Jackie Harvey’s column. Some notes:

  • Clooney is described as “hunktor supreme.”

  • Hatch, Wiglesworth, Buis and Hawk were the “Survivor” contestants mentioned.

  • Bale was Steinem’s husband from 2000 until his death in 2003.

  • The Thing is a member of The Fantastic Four in the Marvel comic-book universe, and The Yancey Street Gang are a bunch of rascals who mostly annoy The Thing. (Editor’s note: I read Fantastic Four comics for many years growing up and had forgotten all about this)

Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference

I’ve said previous issues felt like one big 2000 reference, but I was wrong, because this is jam-packed. Let’s go with the headline-and-photo Jeeves Asked About Genital Warts,” which is only lacking an AltaVista mention to be a “Parks & Recreation” joke.

Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?

With all the real-life people mentioned, Clinton somehow missed the cut.

What was the best horoscope?

Lots of death in this week’s horoscopes, as seem common with The Onion, so let’s go with a different sort of final fate:

Scorpio | Oct. 23 to Nov. 21

You will find yourself engaged in a duel with Satan for the custody of your immortal soul, so you'd better brush up on your Adobe Illustrator skills.

What holds up best?

I know so much of commerce has shifted to apps, even at small eateries, but the idea of Business-Card Drawing For Free Sandwich Mired In Scandal still feels like something that could absolutely happen today, the pandemic notwithstanding.

It’s also so detailed, with the frustrated manager unable to control anything, and his employees either catching customers cheating or rigging the contest themselves.

What holds up worst?

I dislike Senior Citizens Discuss Merits Of County-Clerk Candidates because there’s really no joke, or the joke is that old people are trying to follow local politics. The idea of “haha, look at them caring about local elections” is such a 1990s Gen X-apathy feel that doesn’t resonate now.

What would be done differently today?

Aside from the pandemic, which couldn’t be predicted, I think a lot of this issue would survive in some form. Obviously, the terrorist story would be wildly different today, but it still feels like an Onion story in 2020 to make fun of a terrorist’s travel inconveniences.

What was happening in the real world?

Here are real-world news events from Sept. 4-10, 2000, keeping in mind The Onion’s production schedule was a few days ahead of its publishing date. The news is pulled from InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required):

FAA: More passengers, flight delays expected. Data: Foreign workers as share of U.S. workforce at 70-year high. Bush, Gore debate how to hold TV debates. Bush proposes Medicare overhaul. “Voter Profiles Selling Briskly As Privacy Issues Are Raised.” Indiana University fires Bobby Knight. Inmates helping fight Western wildfires. Congress grills Bridgestone/Firestone CEO. UN holds large conference, looks at expanded peacekeeping role. “H.M.O. Costs Spur Employers To Shift Plans.” Burma/Myanmar places Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Korea deal keeps U.S. troop presence. “Movie Theaters Build Themselves Into a Corner.” Court orders MP3.com to pay damages. Mayan palace rediscovered. Bureau of Indian Affairs director apologizes to native peoples. Venus Williams wins U.S. Open.