Hijackers I Have Known

Hijackers I Have Known

I have met three hijackers in my life, and I hope I do not sound crabby and disillusioned if I add that the standard of hijacking is not what it used to be.


I have met three hijackers in my life, and I hope I do not sound crabby and disillusioned if I add that the standard of hijacking is not what it used to be. The first hijacker I knew was the first civilian on record to use civil aviation to make a political point. His name was Herminio da Palma Inácio, and he was a Portuguese resistance leader in the days of the Salazar dictatorship. During one of that regime’s rigged "plebiscites" in the early 1960s, Palma boarded a plane in Casablanca, caused its pilot and crew to alter their plans, and flew over Lisbon dropping leaflets calling for a free election. He then returned the plane to its home airport and vanished back into his clandestine world. According to some reports, he handed a red rose to every female passenger and apologized for the general inconvenience. He may not even have carried a loaded weapon. At any rate, and though he was for a while known to headline writers as "the most wanted man in Europe," his operations were known for their dash and verve (one appreciates the Casablanca touch) and for their absence of crudity or cruelty. He was a very gallant and charismatic individual. His object was to help bring an end to fascist rule on the Iberian peninsula, and to assist Portuguese-speaking Africa in gaining independence from an especially nasty form of colonial exploitation. He lived (having survived much imprisonment and torture) to witness this happy outcome. I was quite proud to see him again after the jails of Lisbon were thrown open in April 1974, and to shake his hand.

The second hijacker I’d mention is William Lee Brent, who got himself heavily involved in revolutionary politics in the Bay Area in the late 1960s, and who can be seen off to the side in many of the Black Panther photo dramas of that period. He came to the conclusion that he might well not outlive a rap that arose from a violent confrontation with the local police department, and he was also in fear of the reprisals that might come from his comrades, with whom he’d had a few suggestive disagreements. So he borrowed TWA Flight 154 from Oakland in June of 1969 and took himself off to Havana, where he still lives. Nobody was injured by his .38 revolver, the Cubans jailed him as soon as he landed, and he’s written a pretty interesting book called Long Time Gone. It was extremely selfish and irresponsible of Bill to have taken the plane, but he thought it was a matter of survival and has since revisited the matter, and his whole Cuban experience, in a serious and conscientious way.

In 1975 I was in Baghdad trying to write something about the emergence of a sternly constituted and wealthy Baathist regime, which had a militarized pan-Arab ideology and a supposedly impressive and thrusting young vice president named Saddam Hussein. One of my guides and interpreters suggested that I might like to meet Abu Nidal, who was then Iraq’s nominee as leader of the Palestinian struggle and who, on August 19 last, and also in Baghdad, abruptly became "the late."

I thought, sure (the name was not then well-known). At a villa in the city I was introduced to a very menacing individual indeed, who disconcerted me at once by asking if I’d like to train in one of his camps. I can’t remember quite how that subject changed, but we then surreally "covered" a number of topics, including my host’s admiration for the Chinese Cultural Revolution, his superiority to the cowardly compromiser Arafat and related issues.

It might all have been just another bombastic interview with yet another Palestinian pretender (a dime a dozen in those days, from Beirut to Tripoli), until he asked me whether I knew Said Hammami. Mr. Hammami was then the PLO envoy in London and had written a series of essays for the London Times, in which he’d floated the idea of mutual recognition and direct talks between Israel and the PLO. I said that I did know him. Abu Nidal then told me to warn Hammami of the consequences of his treason. With a slight sense of the macabre and the indecent, I did in fact convey this admonition when I returned. Abu Nidal’s gang murdered Said Hammami not long afterward, in a broad-daylight shooting. This crime soon became overlaid by a whole series of demented killings, including the attacks on the airports in Rome and Vienna and the assassination of several important PLO spokesmen. It was Abu Nidal’s attempted murder of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador in London, that allowed Begin and Sharon to declare an end to the truce in Lebanon and formed the pretext for the invasion of that country in 1982. (Argov, when he recovered consciousness, criticized the war that was being waged in his name.) One of the senior PLO leaders, Abu Iyad, became so convinced that Abu Nidal was a double agent that he opened all the files of the Palestinian security chiefs to the author Patrick Seale, who wrote the ultimate "hidden hand" speculation about this bizarre hypothesis.

Just two observations here. Even when talking with Abu Nidal, who was a lethal psychopath and a degraded mercenary, one was still just inside the outer boundaries of rational discourse. But with the forces of Al Qaeda, traditional propaganda terms like "hijacker" and even "terrorist" have become robbed of meaning. We are faced with a weird combination of a state-supported crime family and a bent multinational corporation, sworn to the most reactionary worldview and entirely consecrated to a campaign of annihilation, which its targets are too profane and too corrupt to be expected to understand. This is new, and many liberals as well as many conservatives are still slow to discern the novelty. Second: You hear glib talk about how change in Iraq must wait upon change in Palestine, as if the Saddam Hussein regime felt, or even represented, a sincere concern for the victims of the occupation. But for decades, Baghdad armed and supported a man who was dedicated to the murder of his fellow Palestinians, and to making any solution impossible. If Saddam has now quarreled with him, and perhaps killed him like a roach, this wouldn’t dispel that point so much as restate it in a different way.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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