As I was pulling into the parking lot of the local smoothie place this morning, I heard part of a fascinating NPR interview with Timothy Naftali, author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. The cavalier attitude that airlines, the FAA, and the federal government displayed toward hijackings in the sixties and early seventies struck me as nothing short of astounding. An average of 2 hijackings per month occurred during this period. Everyone regarded them as nuisances to be endured. Airlines and airports did no screening at all of passengers or carry-on luggage. Pilots flying southern U.S. routes often carried maps of the Havana airport. The Swiss government, which mediates between the U.S. and Cuba, produced a hijacking-incident form with just two blanks to fill in: the flight number and the date. The Cuban government delivered sandwiches to the planes after they landed, then charged the U.S. thirty dollars per meal.

Only after a horrific incident in which hijackers threatened to fly a plane into the Oak Ridge nuclear facility (communications between ground controllers and the pilots were carried live on the radio) did President Nixon try to get serious about hijacking. But airlines protested that screening every passenger and carry-on item was impossible. A federal air marshal program failed to get off the ground when opponents protested that their guns might go off accidentally, depressurizing the cabin and sending the airplane crashing to the ground (just like in Goldfinger!).

Of course, when screening finally did begin at airports, thousands of guns were taken from passengers in the first few months.

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