Joseph Slaughter | September 11 | Post45

Some years ago, I found myself sitting among distant cousins at a family reunion; at some point in the long evening I asked, apropos of nothing: “when you were a kid, did you think airplanes got hijacked all the time?” Everyone from my generation answered with an electrified: “yes, all the time!”: D. B. Cooper; Cuba; Palestinians; these were our mnemonics. But were hijackings actually commonplace in the 1970s, or were a few so spectacular they made outsize impressions on our young minds? I later asked a number of childhood friends, who also responded with jolts of recognition. Answering the easy question about the prevalence of hijacking eventually fed into a much larger and tangled academic research interest in the decline of the Third World as a source of inspiration for a more just international order.

As a kid, I knew that airplanes got hijacked. This wasn’t a source of fear; it was plain fact, circulating in the air. Indeed, during my first 5 years, “there were [more than] 326 hijacking attempts worldwide, or one every 5.6 days. These included 137 attempts by individuals who boarded flights in the United States, or one such attempt every 13.3 days.”1 So, yes, airplanes really did get hijacked all the time. The phenomenon was so common in the late 1960s and early 70s that one commentator retrospectively dubbed this period “the Golden Age of Hijacking”2; others have tracked the “skyjack virus” as a social pandemic.3 Historical facts are one thing; the social imaginary is often another. For my friends, a man known as D. B. Cooper, who parachuted from a hijacked plane in 1971, with a sack of ransom cash, was part of our stock of folk anti-heroes. This, too, was common enough that one psychologist worried in Science News: “Young children are beginning to idolize him the way previous generations idolized Bonnie and Clyde.”4 Cooper’s daring skydive was part of the hijacking imaginary of my youth.

Originally published in Post45. Read the full article here