Saturday, January 22, 2005

Byck and Rice
Over the last week or so, I've received a number of hits from people looking for information on Samuel Byck whose story is told in the new movie "The Assassination of Richard Nixon." Because the post in which I mentioned Byck was was one discussing how badly Condi Rice was performing her job as National Security Advisor, the post seems doubly relevant this week, so I'm rerunning it here. I first ran this post on March 21, 2004. (Note: Some of the original hyperlinks no longer work. I've left them intact in the interests of historical comptetion and not because I'm a lazy old poop.)

Remember Samuel Byck?
Most people don't. Condoleezza Rice certainly doesn't. In an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post she's still pushing the official party line that they had no reason to suspect that someone would try to hijack an airliner and use it as a weapon. She originally made this claim in May 2002: "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people - would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile." Today she qualifies it a little, but only a little: "...we received no intelligence that terrorists were preparing to attack the homeland using airplanes as missiles...." It's minor difference, from one of no one could to no one would.

Atrios takes exception to this nonsense, pointing out that the CIA had produced a report on just that danger--specifically naming bin Laden--as early as 1999. "Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House," according to the September 1999 report entitled "Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?." Atrios lets her off too easily. Since Condi follows her boss in not actually reading reports, she might have an excuse for not knowing about the CIA warning.

But that wasn't the only warning that such a danger existed. At the Genoa summit of the leaders of the G-8 industrial leaders, the Italians went to great lengths to protect the leaders from arial attack and specifically named bin Laden as the source of the threat.

Professional and amateur reporters have brought to light a whole series of explicit warnings about the possibility of terrorist attacks throughout the decade of the nineties, including some actual kamikaze attempts. In 1994, French authorities frustrated a plot to fly an airliner into the Eiffel Tower after the plane had already been hijacked and three passengers killed. In 1995 Philippine authorities uncovered plot by Ramzi Yousef's group named Project Bojinka. According to this ambitious plot they would fly hijacked airliners into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the Pentagon, the White House, the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Transamerica Tower in San Francisco, and the World Trade Center while blowing up another eleven planes in the air and assassinating the Pope in Manila.

Oddly missing from most of these accounts is the story Samuel Byck, the only homegrown, American, wannabe kamikaze.

On the morning of February 22, 1974, Byck tried to hijack a Delta Airlines DC-9 in Baltimore with the intention of killing Nixon by crashing the plane into the White House. Byck was an unemployed salesman from Philadelphia who was already known to the Secret Service. For two years he had been mailing threats to the president and bizarre taped messages to public figures like Jonas Salk, Senator Abe Ribicoff, and Leonard Bernstein. The previous Christmas he had picketed the White House in a Santa suit and a sign that read "All I want for Christmas is my constitutional right to publicly petition my government for a redress of grievances."

Byck's plan was a disaster from the moment he entered the airport. As soon as he was delayed by the screening line he went berserk. Drawing a gun he shot and killed a security guard and rushed aboard the plane. When the pilot tried to say the plane wasn't ready to take off he killed the pilot and wounded the co-pilot. Byck didn't know how to fly a plane so he grabbed a passenger and ordered her to fly him to Washington. Before he could take his frustration out on the terrified passenger, airport police fired through the window of the cockpit wounding him. Byck killed himself rather than be captured.

A tape sent to columnist Jack Anderson explained his motives. Byck had been turned down for a Small Business loan.

Byck may finally be getting his moment of creepy infamy. Twenty years later, Stephen Sondheim made Byck a character in one of his least successful (but still great) musicals "Assassins." Sean Penn will be playing him in the forthcoming movie "The Assassination of Richard Nixon." Penn takes his role philosophically, "Yes, once again, I'm in the feel-good picture of the year."

Why has Byck been so absent from discussions of terror? Is it because it was thirty years ago? Byck's incompetent plot took place during the golden age of hijacking. Had he succeeded, he would have killed about four hundred people (and rather abruptly ended the Watergate crisis). Certainly, any discussion of hijacking, airport security, and the danger of airplanes as missiles should include our closest previous near miss. Is this just another one of those things that we can blame on the lack of historical sense among Americans? Or is it because Byck was a white American citizen. Just as Oklahoma City and other right-wing domestic terror rarely makes it into our public discussions of the current threat, do we exclude Byck from our historical memory simply because he wasn't Cuban or Palestinian?

I believe my friend David Neiwert has the straight dope on this one. The War on Terror is more of a marketing effort than an actual war or even law enforcement campaign. The official narrative is that America is standing tall against cowardly (brown, non-Christian) foreigners. Straight talking Republicans are our only hope. The rhetoric rallies the faithful to the GOP banner and even peels some Democratically inclined voters over to Bush's side. There is no advantage in suggesting that some Republican friendly groups might be terrorists. The only domestic them allowable in this us-or-them scenario are people who would never vote for Bush, liberals, pacifists, and overly loud critics. The press, more lazy than evil, take the official talking points of the War on Terror and run with them. They still sometimes come up with conclusions that make the administration uncomfortable. But having been told we are in a war of civilizations with an unspeakable foreign them, how many are likely to look at the possible relevance of a middle-aged, unhappy, Jewish guy from Philadelphia?

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