The Magazine

Terrorism and Liberalism in the '70s

A decade of spinelessness helped pave the way for the election of Ronald Reagan

Feb 7, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 20 • By DAVID FRUM
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Glass, glass everywhere: That's what travelers saw when they entered Washington's new Dulles International Airport in 1959. Under a concrete roof that curved like the takeoff trajectory of a jet hung four vast windows without a retaining wall in sight. And beyond the glass, there was only the sky -- the sky that America ruled in the way that Britain had once ruled the waves. It was from the air that America had dropped the atomic bombs that ended World War II. It was by air that America had sustained its hold on West Berlin during the darkest moment of the Cold War. It was through the air that the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe subverted the enemy Soviet Union. And it was via air that millions of newly prosperous Americans, their wallets stuffed with their almighty dollars, were inflicting the new industry of mass tourism upon the unhappy residents of Paris and Rome.

You can still see the glass at Dulles. But you can't see much of the sky. The vista overlooking the runways is now chopped off by a long wall, broken at intervals by doorways that lead to metal detectors and x-ray machines. It's incredible now, but within the memory of people now living, air passengers routinely walked from the door of the airport to their seat on the plane without being searched, scanned, or interrogated. And this was not seen as remarkable or miraculous: It was ordinary, normal, the way things were expected to be. Despite (or maybe because of) the international tension of the 1950s and '60s -- despite the Berlin and Cuban Crises -- the Eisenhower and Kennedy years were a time of security for Americans from dangers much below the level of thermonuclear holocaust. Americans had reason to fear war, but they did not have to fear that some bomb-carrying fanatic might blow their airplane to smithereens.

The first task of government is to guarantee the safety of the citizen, and that is a task that after 1970 Western governments performed less and less well. Over the Labor Day weekend of 1970, teams of Arab commandos seeking the release of Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian assassin of Robert Kennedy, performed the spectacular feat of simultaneously hijacking four jumbo jets, two of them the property of American airlines. Two of the hijacked jumbos were flown to Dawson's Field, near Amman, Jordan. Four hundred passengers, 150 or so of them Americans, were held hostage for three weeks until Jordan's King Hussein mobilized his army to force the release of the captives. The empty planes were blown up by the hijackers in a headline-grabbing act of destruction.

The first airline hijacking recorded by history occurred in Peru in 1930, when officers attempting a coup diverted a plane to drop leaflets over Lima. The United States suffered them intermittently in the 1950s, mostly by bank robbers commandeering planes to make good their exits. But so long as planes had relatively short flying ranges -- and so long as there was nowhere within that range for a would-be hijacker to commandeer a plane to -- hijacking's potential was severely limited. Then, on February 21, 1968, Lawrence Wilson Rhodes stepped aboard a Delta Airlines DC-8, pointed a pistol at a stewardess after takeoff, and demanded to be flown to Havana. Over the next two years, his example would inspire an assortment of crooks on the lam, lunatics, black nationalists, and Castroite radicals to commandeer a total of 38 American planes, 37 of them to Cuba. None of these hijackings resulted in death or injury. The Cuban authorities behaved politely enough, feeding the abducted passengers roast beef dinners and selling them the famous local rum and cigars at duty-free prices before sending them home.

These early hijackings were not without their ludicrous aspects -- "Take dees plane to Cooba!" became the punch line of wearisome nightclub comedians -- but their import was not funny at all. The United States was no longer able to protect its citizens from international anarchy. And through the 1970s, international anarchy obtruded itself ever more terrifyingly into American consciousness.