Books

The Pre-9/11 Hijacking Era Revisited

the skies belong to usMy post about the Black Panther documentary last month inspired my interest in learning more about the BPP international section.  I was browsing through my library a couple of weeks ago and realized that I had a copy of Brendan Koerner’s book The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

(Disclaimer: I got this review copy of the book for free from the publisher a couple of years ago, but never got around to reading it at the time.)

This is one of the best books I have read in awhile.  Part investigative journalism, part thriller, this book doesn’t disappoint!  I literally couldn’t put this book down and finished it in three days.  The book centers around Western Airlines Flight 701, which was hijacked in 1972 by Roger Holder and his then girlfriend Catherine Kerkow.  This story has everything – sex, drugs, violence, mental illness, racism and politics.

Koerner does an excellent job of describing the hijackers’ backstory.  Holder and Kerkow, other than the both of them living in the same town of Coos Bay, Oregon briefly, couldn’t have been more different from each other.  He was a black man who felt discriminated against because of his skin color; first while living with his military family in Oregon and then as a soldier in Vietnam who was wrongly court-martialed for a petty crime.  She was a white woman who had a typical working class upbringing who became a masseur that gave hand jobs to male clients and sold marijuana on the side.

Holder had gone AWOL, writing bad checks and dealing with the onset of PTSD when he met Kerkow in San Diego.  He came up with the crazy idea of hijacking a plane, swapping the passengers for Angela Davis, who was on trial at the time for the Marin County incident, and bringing her to the Vietcong in North Vietnam.  The plan was to get ransom money that Holder and Kerkow would use to start a new life in Australia.

Sounds pretty crazy me, and unbelievable that the plane crew believed it, but they got away with it – sorta. Instead of going to Vietnam, they took the hijacked plane to Algeria, where they met up with Eldridge Cleaver and other Black Panthers on the lam.

I won’t give away too much of the story, but it is that wild and crazy and worth the read.  I will say that Catherine Kerkow is still on the run, and wanted by the FBI.  She has been rumored to be living in Cuba, but there is no substantive proof.

But the book is not just about Holder and Kerkow.  Koerner spends most of the book giving a substantive history of the “golden age” of hijackings, which was a common occurrence during the 1960s and 1970s.  I am only old enough to understand hijackings through the context of 9/11.  But even before 9/11, I never knew of a time when there weren’t metal detectors and security guards searching your person at the airport.  It seems impossible for me to imagine a time when people could just walk onto a plane without any of the strict security hassles we deal with today.

Apparently, this atmosphere of innocence did exist for a short time 50 years ago when commercial air travel was becoming more accessible to more people.  Many “skyjackers” saw this as an opportunity to use planes as vessels to gain worldwide attention.  Most of the earliest skyjackers were Fidel Castro sympathizers who wanted to fly to Havana.

Over time, skyjackers’ reasons for taking planes became varied and, well, insane.  Some wanted to bring attention to legitimate struggles like the Palestine question or racism in America, while others hijacked planes to avoid paying taxes or just wanted to get ransom money.  A lot of the hijackers were really mentally disturbed, especially the ones that parachuted off planes mid-flight like D.B. Cooper. Hijackings became so common during this time that there was one or two once a week.

These hijackings straddled the fine line between revolutionary acts and terrorism.  It makes you wonder if everyone during this time was crazy… or just high!

The only hijackings I was aware of before reading this book were the ones carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine during the Black September timeline, and specifically PFLP member Leila Khaled – who hijacked two planes – the first woman to ever hijack a plane.  An interesting documentary about her life was done a few years ago.

The book also introduced me to Delta Air Lines Flight 841, which was hijacked by radical black militants who wanted to copycat the Western Airlines incident. They are mentioned in Koerner’s book, but there was also a more indepth documentary done about that incident too.  In the film, the director goes to Paris to interview one of the hijackers George Brown.

Whatever reason a plane was hijacked back then, the skies no longer belong to anyone today.

Why You Should Support Freedom of Information

Read Banned BooksI was having a casual conversation the other day with a client about censorship in his home country of China.  He told me that among many, many things banned in the communist country, he said that he had never heard of Alice in Wonderland until he moved to England to attend college.  The Hunan province in China actually banned the classic children’s book because “animals should not use human language, and that it was disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.”

My first thought was to go into my usual rant about how oppressive China is and how free and lucky I am to be in the United States.  And, trust me, America does a better job of supporting free speech than most other countries in the world.  However, even in the land of the free, this country has its own censorship issues.

This is why we still need Banned Books Week.  

This week free speech advocates are highlighting books that have been challenged or banned in schools and public libraries around the United States.  The goal is to expose readers to literature that present different ideas and perspectives, even if those ideas and perspectives are contrary to their own beliefs.

According to the American Library Association, there were 311 reported attempts to remove or restrict materials from school curricula and library bookshelves during the 2014-2015 school year.  As a journalist, author, blogger and publisher, I have always been a strong supporter of free expression.  Furthermore, exploring literature from different perspectives give us a more well-rounded understanding of the world and it makes us better people.

Here is a list of the top 10 books that were challenged or banned in 2014.  I hope you will choose to read one or more of them!

1) “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie

Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”

2) “Persepolis,” by Marjane Satrapi

Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”

3) “And Tango Makes Three,” Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

Reasons: Anti-family, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “promotes the homosexual agenda”

4) “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison

Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “contains controversial issues”

5) “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie Harris

Reasons: Nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. Additional reasons: “alleges it child pornography”

6) “Saga,” by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Reasons: Anti-Family, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. Additional reasons:

7) “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini

Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited to age group, violence

8) “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky

Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “date rape and masturbation”

9) “A Stolen Life,” Jaycee Dugard

Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group

10) “Drama,” by Raina Telgemeier

Reasons: sexually explicit  

There are dozens of other books that have been banned or challenged over the last two decades. You can find the full lists here.

Learn more about Banned Books Week here.