Some years ago, I found myself sitting among distant cousins at a family reunion; at some point in the long evening I asked, apropos of nothing: "when you were a kid, did you think airplanes got hijacked all the time?" Everyone from my generation answered with an electrified: "yes, all the time!": D. B. Cooper; Cuba; Palestinians; these were our mnemonics. But were hijackings actually commonplace in the 1970s, or were a few so spectacular they made outsize impressions on our young minds? I later asked a number of childhood friends, who also responded with jolts of recognition. Answering the easy question about the prevalence of hijacking eventually fed into a much larger and tangled academic research interest in the decline of the Third World as a source of inspiration for a more just international order.

As a kid, I knew that airplanes got hijacked. This wasn't a source of fear; it was plain fact, circulating in the air. Indeed, during my first 5 years, "there were [more than] 326 hijacking attempts worldwide, or one every 5.6 days. These included 137 attempts by individuals who boarded flights in the United States, or one such attempt every 13.3 days."1 So, yes, airplanes really did get hijacked all the time. The phenomenon was so common in the late 1960s and early 70s that one commentator retrospectively dubbed this period "the Golden Age of Hijacking"2; others have tracked the "skyjack virus" as a social pandemic.3 Historical facts are one thing; the social imaginary is often another. For my friends, a man known as D. B. Cooper, who parachuted from a hijacked plane in 1971, with a sack of ransom cash, was part of our stock of folk anti-heroes. This, too, was common enough that one psychologist worried in Science News: "Young children are beginning to idolize him the way previous generations idolized Bonnie and Clyde."4 Cooper's daring skydive was part of the hijacking imaginary of my youth.

Also looming large was Castro's Cuba. I grew up in Florida, whose southern-most point sits just 90 miles across the Straits from Cuba. But Jacksonville, at the other end of the state, where I lived, was culturally and politically many leagues farther than the 432 nautical miles that separated it from Havana. And yet, I was vaguely aware that Cuba had something to do with hijacking. FAA statistics bear that out. Of 137 hijackings originating in the US between 1968 and 1972, 111 were "transportation hijackings,"5 with 90 flights detoured to Cuba. Hijackings to Cuba were so routine that cockpits were equipped with landing maps for José Martí International Airport. Castro had teams on standby to arrest hijackers, to feed, lodge, and entertain passengers, and to bill airlines for the costs. The US press wrote of "the Cuba milk run"6 with a blitheness that is unthinkable today: hijacking to Havana was "a funny thing that happened" on the way to Miami.7 In 1971, the US Director of Civil Aviation Security observed that "most hijack passengers considered it little more than an unfortunate delay, if not an exciting adventure."8 In the national security literature from the period, a general concern about hijacking seems to be a general lack of concern about hijackings.

An offhanded question to friends about shared personal memories of hijacking brought into focus an intense instance of what Raymond Williams, in "The Analysis of Culture," famously called "a structure of feeling": the "felt sense of the quality of life at a particular place and time: a sense of the ways in which the particular activities combined into a way of thinking and living."9 Constituting "a particular community of experience hardly needing expression," a structure of feeling is the "most difficult thing to get hold of, in studying any past period," because it is rarely addressed directly in the historical record.10 For my community of feeling, a sense of hijacking's ordinariness was part of, even epitomizes, a structure of feeling toward the wide world of politics and the social order (or disorder) of the 1970s toward, in fact, what Williams in 1961 called "the long revolution" itself, "the rising determination, almost everywhere, that people should govern themselves, . . . [w]hether in popular revolution, in the liberation movements of colonial peoples, or in the extension of parliamentary suffrage."11 Although we weren't conscious of it then, the structure of feeling that attended our early hijacking imaginary was on the side of human liberation and decolonization.

This structure of feeling around hijacking in the early 70s provides not only a stark contrast to more recent hijacking imaginaries but also a window into how global events shape social feelings at personal levels, which later inflect how subsequent global events unfold and are assimilated as knowledge. Much intellectual history today misapprehends and misrepresents the messy complexity of its topic because intellectual historians are often poorly attuned or willfully inattentive to the structures of feeling that permeate communities of people for and to whom such major historical events may matter most. Instead, they tell counterfactual (or, more precisely, contra-cultural) histories based on the privileged documentary evidence archived by a few highly-placed men historically almost always men, and almost always white. They are part of the machinery that rehearses and reinforces what Williams called "the selective tradition,"12 rather than attempting to capture the thick discursive atmosphere of mixed messages, political positioning, muddled languages, incoherent attitudes, contradictory practices, competing norms, dissonant desires, and imaginative expectations that make up the texture of the times. This historiographical posture often perpetrates a form of hijacking history itself.13

In the case of skyjacking, evolving structures of feeling register and reinforce grand transformations in international relations and the global order that unfolded during the 1960s and 70s era of decolonization, civil rights struggles, and Third World solidarity and anticolonial national liberation movements. What happened to the figure of the hijacker in the 70s is part of the geopolitical history of the rise of neoliberalism, which entailed: the orchestrated sabotage by the US and Europe of Third World efforts to decolonize international law and the international order at the U.N.; the neocolonial betrayal of postcolonial sovereignty and self-determination; and a rapid wholesale inversion in the discourse on terror that turned erstwhile "freedom fighters" into "terrorists."

Structures of feeling become most apparent when one "community of experience" encounters the "native style" of thought of another.14 "We are usually most aware of this," Williams says, "when we notice the contrasts between generations, who never talk quite 'the same language'."15 When I hear the word "hijacking," I likely have in mind something substantively different from the 9/11 archetype imagined by my students and other people born after 1980; just as when I say "Third World," I mean something radically different from the slur intended when pundits describe Donald Trump as a Third World Dictator (rather than, say, a First World Fascist or an American Autocrat) or when Joe Biden hypothesized in 2014: "if I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York you must think, 'I must be in some third world country'."16 The pejoration of "Third World" and the villainization of the hijacker belong to the same discursive shifts of neoliberalism in the 1970s. My shared childhood hijacking imaginary is an airy artifact of its time, when the expansion of airline travel intersected with radical liberationist politics and "Third World" still evoked the promise of an expansive epistemological, political, and cultural decolonization to come.

The earlier structure of feeling around routinized hijacking, and the global history of postcolonial international relations in which it is embedded, is mostly unremembered today, having been washed over by successive waves of justifiably ill feelings about hijacking. Still, the more innocuous version of hijacking is perceptible in the ephemeral documentary record of bourgeois life. For example, in 1968, the Australian newspaper Daily Telegraph published a cartoon in which a spy-vs-spy-stylized hijacker, with his pistol in his hand and grenade in the other, makes a PA announcement, as one corpulent passenger reads a newspaper headline that presciently, or perpetually, reports "Another US Jet Hijacked to Cuba."

The cartoon was republished in a December 1968 edition of Time magazine, in a travel-section article titled "What to Do When the Hijacker Comes." The whimsical piece notes that while pilots and stewardesses receive instruction on handling hijackings, "nobody has yet thought to brief the poor passengers."17 The article warns: Don't be aggressive, or panic, or push the call button. "If you require assistance or must go to the lavatory, raise your hand. Captors permitting, there will be normal beverage service . . . ."18 Further, it advises taking advantage of the free trip to Cuba: relax, buy cigars and rum at the airport, and "[b]ring a bathing suit" to enjoy the magnificent sands of Varadero Beach.19 Read through post-9/11 lenses, the article feels satirical and improbable, but the coolness it conveys reflects other popular forms of expression from the period.

While pop culture treated the hijacked-passenger experience casually, hijackers were taken seriously, generally treated in the press as what terrorism expert Louise Richardson later called "transnational actors."20 Havana-bound hijackers often "framed their actions in explicitly political terms by invoking left-wing tropes of social justice and political protest," imagining Cuba as "an alternative to consumer capitalism, white domination, and US global hegemony and as a portal to Third World [revolutionary] movements."21 At the time, such "attacks were not generally or consistently called terrorism; nor were those who committed them generally or consistently called terrorists. They were bandits, rebels, guerrillas, . . . revolutionaries, or insurgents."22 After all, official US policy after the 1959 Cuban revolution welcomed "Cubans who hijacked sea and air vessels to the United States as Cold War refugees from communism"23 an ironic fact sometimes noticed in the news coverage of the time.

By 1972 domestic US opinion began reversing direction as hijacking was recoded as terrorism and its political motivations were discredited by pathologizing hijackers as "passive, effeminate, latently homosexual, and afraid of their eldest sisters and mothers."24 This pathological profile, widely circulated in the media, was based on interviews conducted by psychiatrist Donald Hubbard with fifty hijackers, nearly all white men, although a disproportionate number of domestic hijackers were African American military veterans.25 Hubbard diagnosed the hijackers as "paranoid, suicidal schizophrenics":26

Most are men. They are generally from the lower end of a middle-sized family. In many cases there is a younger sister in whom they have an inordinate sexual interest. The father is generally a violent alcoholic, and the mother a religious fanatic. Between them is an unbridgeable chasm that the child learns early on to run back and forth across, just as he subsequently runs back and forth across state and country boundaries.27

This pseudo-clinical pathology not only challenged the hijackers' political motivations, it simultaneously took rhetorical aim at the nascent gay rights movement, women's liberation, and (by glaring omission) the civil rights struggle, especially its more militant manifestations in actions by the Black Liberation Army. A more sympathetic assessment from the Institute for Psychiatry and Foreign Affairs described hijackers simply as "the dispossessed," an evocative choice of words given the international political context of the era's most infamous hijackings.28


On or around September 11th, the character of hijackers and airports began to change: September 11th, 1970, that is. As Virginia Woolf noted, "when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature."29 So, too, do changes in the expressive realms of religion, conduct, politics, and literature change human relations. On 9/11/1970, in response to the audacious hijacking of five airplanes by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), President Nixon announced "A Program to Deal with Airplane Hijacking" that included placing armed marshals on US flights, "extend[ing] the use of electronic equipment and other surveillance techniques to . . . appropriate airports," and assessing the usefulness of "metal detectors and x-ray devices now available to the military" for civil aviation.30 Plans for the militarized airport-security infrastructure and passenger discipline we now take for granted were prepared that day.

Nixon's policy responded to the PFLP's revolutionary strategy of hijacking, which Palestinian poet and PFLP spokesman Ghassan Kanafani defended in the New Left Review: "we don't hijack planes because we love Boeing 707s. We do it for specific reasons, at a specific time and against a specific enemy."31 Like Kanafani, Nixon was reacting to the spectacle of European airplanes landing among camels in the Middle East. On September 6, 1970, three planes were hijacked from Germany, Holland, and Switzerland. Two were flown to Dawson's Field airstrip in the Jordanian desert; the other was diverted to Cairo. A fourth hijacking was foiled, one commando killed and another arrested: Leila Khaled, a 24-year-old woman who became the "poster girl" for Palestinian hijacking. On September 9, a fifth plane was hijacked from Bahrain to Dawson's Field in hope of exchanging its passengers for Khaled. The hijackers also demanded release of Palestinian political prisoners in the US, Europe, and Israel. On September 11, most of the 310 passengers were freed; the remaining 56 were transferred to Amman. That same day, Nixon announced his "Program to Deal with Airplane Hijacking." On September 12, the PFLP dynamited the empty planes, images of the blazing behemoths splashed across television screens and front pages everywhere. In response, Jordan's King Hussein declared an all-out assault on Palestinian forces in the country, initiating a civil war later known as Black September. Within a month, the remaining hostages were exchanged for Khaled and other political prisoners.

Our contemporary hijacking imaginary is so overdetermined by images of 9/11 that it is worth watching raw newsreel footage of the 1970 PFLP hijackings; the scenes of relative civility now seem shocking in their own way for viewers expecting horrific violence.

Nixon never denounced the PFLP hijackers as terrorists, and media coverage drew generally from the lexica of legitimate guerrilla warfare, implicitly recognizing the hijackers as political actors in pursuit of political ends. Only later in the decade did the easy invocation of terrorism become frequent in US political discourse.32 Nonetheless, Nixon's September 11th pronouncement represents the beginning of the end of a more innocent hijacking imaginary and the coming turn in the discourse on terrorism. Both his affirmation of the Tokyo Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft (1963) which also does not mention "terrorism" or "hijacking" and his call to the "international community" to draft a "multilateral convention providing for the extradition or punishment of hijackers"33 point in the direction of international law and a reversal in terrorism discourse that would have lasting implications for the geopolitics of national liberation, radical decolonization, and the long revolution that remain today.

From the perspective of postcolonial international relations, the 1970s was a chiastic decade, during which many fundamental principles underpinning the post-1945 world order reversed polarity.34 Basic legal ideals such as self-determination, state sovereignty over natural resources, and human rights more generally were distended, distorted, and captured by the logic of neoliberalism to become tools of neocolonial exploitation of the Third World. This reversal was part of "the structural resubordination of the [Global] South" by the old and new imperial powers of Europe, the US, and transnational corporations that Walden Bello referred to as "the rollback."35 The restoration of Euro-American hegemony, after a short Third World interregnum at the U.N., entailed the recapture of international law from the postcolonial majority that amassed in the General Assembly following formal decolonization, hastening the "decomposition of the Third World"36 from "autonomous sources of alternative global visions"37 into problems (and careers) for Western economic and humanitarian intervention. Among the many mechanisms that abetted this reversal was a seismic shift in terrorism discourse that served to discredit and delegitimize the leftover national liberation struggles of the 1960s.38

The inverted discourse on terrorism not only turned freedom fighters into terrorists, it also flipped the meaning so that "terrorism" came to apply almost exclusively to acts of anti-state aggression rather than to repressive state violence against citizens as a mode of governance. Lisa Stampnitzky notes that "terrorism," as we now understand it, "first took shape in the 1970s, when it emerged out of, and differentiated from, the discourse on insurgency."39 Following the heyday of decolonization, anti-colonial national liberation movements still enjoyed some respectability in the 70s, and "the terms 'terror' and 'terrorism' . . . were just as, if not more, likely to refer to institutional or state violence as to the sort of oppositional activity we associate with it today."40 An early U.N. study of terrorism, in 1972, acknowledged that the term historically "applied mainly to those acts and policies of Governments which were designed to spread terror among a population for the purpose of ensuring its submission to and conformity with the will of those Governments."41 By the end of the decade, with the neoliberal rollback and repossession of international law, the discourse on terrorism solidified around the image of rogue individuals making irregular challenges to state policy, authority, and legitimacy, and "recast such incidents as the acts of pathological, irrational actors, precluding its [terrorism's] application to the actions of states."42 Meanwhile, what used to be called state terror was now euphemized as "violations of human rights."43

The clinching event in this rhetorical reversal seems to be the brutal massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by the pro-Palestinian faction Black September, named for the 1970 civil war. Much of the transformation in the discourse of terrorism hinges on the figure of the Palestinian hijacker and positions that governments officially took on what the U.N. perennially calls "the Question of Palestine." This discursive transformation is concisely enacted in a pointed 1974 essay by historian Walter Laqueur: "Guerrillas and Terrorists." "[W]hat was once known as guerrilla warfare," argued Laqueur, "is gradually giving way in many countries to terrorist tactics, pure and simple."44 Here, the delegitimation of Palestinian hijackers and guerrillas, who have "no wish to exhaust the possibilities of legal struggle,"45 hangs on a technical distinction that, were it accepted, would automatically disqualify most Palestinian efforts (armed or otherwise) from counting as a national liberation struggle. With the majority of Palestinian fighters expelled from Israel and the West Bank, "it became a guerrilla movement in exile which is to say that it ceased to be a guerrilla movement in any meaningful sense."46 Thus, the very dispossession being contested becomes the legal pretext for criminalizing the struggle no longer guerrillas, Palestinian militants must be terrorists, pure and simple.

Nearly two decades beyond 9/11/2001, the hijacking imaginary of my youth might seem quaint, something to be outgrown in order to face the facts about terrorism today. Such dismissal of 1960s and 70s political idealism is standard fare among those who prefer to start the history of our present at a more recent point in time or wish to reject the structures of feeling of the decolonization era as infantile, irrational fantasies. But the evacuation of history is precisely one of the calculated effects of an inverted discourse on terrorism. As Edward Said astutely observed in a sharp review of the book Terrorism: How the West Can Win (1986), edited by Benjamin Netanyahu, the "wholesale attempt to obliterate history, and indeed temporality itself" is part of the standard operating procedure of post-70s discourse on terrorism; "For the main thing [in waging a full-scale ideological and cultural battle against terrorism] is to isolate your enemy from time, from causality, from prior action, and thereby to portray him or her as ontologically and gratuitously interested in wreaking havoc for its own sake."47 In other words, histories of colonialism and dispossession are primary targets of terrorism discourse today.

All imaginaries have histories and pre-histories, and my historical hijacking imaginary is worth recalling if for no other reasons than to remember the structures of feeling for the liberated futures of our predecessors and to reactivate a sense of what has been obliterated in the meantime. Teju Cole sought to disturb a closely related structure of feeling by superimposing one imaginary onto others in his seven short stories for drones, launched on Twitter in January 2013 with a revision of Virginia Woolf's famous opening line: "Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist's."48 Cole dropped an imaginary drone from another time and place onto an urban London literary scene, collapsing not only time and space but also distant structures of feeling: a modernist sense of the quality of life that presumably coalesced in or about December, 1910 and a community of experience with  UAVs that too many people endure now, part of the 9/11 fallout that Barbara Harlow referred to as "the drone imprint."49 Cole summons those of us on the remote-control end of a drone imaginary to picture Mrs. Dalloway's day shattered by an unexpected strike, pitiless violence out of the blue that, by the overriding vicious logic of terrorism discourse today, has become nearly as routine as buying flowers or a hijacking to Cuba in 1968.

Joseph R. Slaughter teaches postcolonial literature and theory, cultural studies, human rights, and third-world approaches to literature and international law at Columbia University. He is completing two books: New Word Orders, on intellectual/cultural property and world literature, and Hijacking Human Rights, on the rise and fall of international law, from colonialism to neoliberalism.


  1. Robert T. Holden, "The Contagiousness of Aircraft Hijacking," American Journal of Sociology 91, no. 4 (1986): 874-904; 874.[]
  2. Brendan I. Koerner, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking (New York: Crown Publishing, 2013), 8.[]
  3. Holden, 876.[]
  4. Robert J. Trotter, "Psyching the Skyjacker," Science News 101, no. 7 (Februrary 12, 1972): 108-110; 108.[]
  5. Holden, "The Contagiousness," 878.[]
  6. Trotter, "Psyching," 127.[]
  7. "What to Do When the Hijacker Comes." Time, December 6, 1968, 78-80.[]
  8. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., "New Developments in Airport Security," The Urban Lawyer 3, no. 2 (1971): 263-65; 264.[]
  9. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution [1961] (Cardigan: Pathian Books, 2011), 68.[]
  10. Ibid.[]
  11. Ibid., 10.[]
  12. Ibid., 70.[]
  13. On the new revisionist histories of human rights and international law as forms of hijacking history itself, see Joseph R. Slaughter, "Hijacking Human Rights: Neoliberalism, the New Historiography, and the End of the Thirds World," Human Rights Quarterly 40, no. 4 (2018): 735-775. []
  14. Ibid., 68-69.[]
  15. Ibid.[]
  16. Biden's seizure of "Third World" as a pejorative epithet is exacerbated but also ironically undercut by the bizarre scenario of extraordinary rendition he conjures of a Vice President abducting citizens to drag them to a dilapidated airport. See, Nate Rawlings, "Joe Biden Says NYC Airport Like 'Some 3rd-World Country'," Time, February 7, 2014. []
  17. "What to Do When the Hijacker Comes," 78.[]
  18. Ibid.[]
  19. Ibid., 80.[]
  20. Louise Richardson, "Terrorists as Transnational Actors," Terrorism and Political Violence 11, no. 4 (1999): 209-219.[]
  21. Teishan A. Latner, "Take Me to Havana! Airline Hijacking, U.S.-Cuba Relations, and Political Protest in Late Sixties' America," Diplomatic History 39, no. 1 (2014): 16-44; 16, 18. Latner examines some of the problematic ways that hijackers repeated imperialist tropes about Cuba even as they imagined the country as a space of anti-capitalist, anti-racist freedom. For their part, Cuban officials often treated the hijackers as "common criminals, corrupt individuals, mentally unbalanced persons and socially unadapted persons anxious to change their country of residence or prompted by strictly personal motivations, which cases cannot be considered as being of a revolutionary nature," in the words of the anti-hijacking law passed in September 1969 (cited in Latner, 17). []
  22. David Tucker, Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997), 2.[]
  23. Latner, "Take Me" 43.[]
  24. "The Sick Skyjacker," Time, November 13, 1972, 51-53; 51.[]
  25. Latner, "Take Me" 20.[]
  26. "The Sick Hijacker," 51.[]
  27. Trotter, "Psyching," 108.[]
  28. Cited in Koerner, 93.[]
  29. Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (London: Hogarth Press, 1924), 5. []
  30. Richard Nixon, "Statement Announcing a Program to Deal with Airplane Hijacking," September 11, 1970. []
  31. Ghassan Kannafani, "Interview with Ghassan Kannafani on the PFLP and the September Attack," New Left Review 67 (May/June 1971): 47-56; 50.[]
  32. See Rémi Brulin, "Defining 'Terrorism': The 1972 General Assembly Debates on 'International Terrorism' and Their Coverage by the New York Times," If It Was Not for Terrorism: Crisis, Compromise, and Elite Discourse in the Age of 'War on Terror.' Edited by Banu Baybars-Hawks and Lemi Baruh. (New Castel upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 12-30.[]
  33. Nixon, "Statement"[]
  34. Slaughter, "Hijacking Human Rights," 769-771.[]
  35. Walden Bello, Dark Victory: The United States, Structural Adjustment and Global Poverty (London: Pluto Press, 1994), 3. []
  36. Ibid., 71.[]
  37. Arif Dirlik, The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism (New York: Routledge, 1997), 147.[]
  38. See also Bernhard Blumenau, "The Other Battleground of the Cold War: The UN and the Struggle against International Terrorism in the 1970s," Journal of Cold War Studies 16, no. 1 (2014): 61-84.[]
  39. Lisa Stampnitzky, Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented 'Terrorism' (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 7.[]
  40. Ibid., 9.[]
  41. United Nations, Study Prepared by the Secretariat in Accordance with the Decision Taken by the Sixth Committee at its 1314th Meeting, on 27 September 1972. As Blumenau notes, at the various U.N. conferences on terrorism throughout the 1970s, the recently independent states maintained the older view; "for the Third World, 'terrorism' was not individual terrorism as in the logic of the West but state-executed or state-sponsored terrorism" (Blumenau, 69).[]
  42. Stampnitzky, Disciplining, 9.[]
  43. Eqbal Ahmad, "Comprehending Terror," Middle East Report 140, no. 3 (1986): 2-5; 3.[]
  44. Walter Laqueur, "Guerrillas and Terrorists," Commentary 58, no. 4 (1974): 40-48.[]
  45. Ibid.[]
  46. Ibid., 46.[]
  47. Edward W. Said, "The Essential Terrorist," The Nation, June, 14 1986, 828-33; 830.[]
  49. Barbara Harlow, "The Drone Imprint: Literature in the Age of UAVs," Race & Class 60, no. 3 (2018): 59-72.[]