Before we turn to our affairs

Mountain Interval by Robert Frost


I’m going to unceremoniously lift the last two lines from Robert Frost’s powerful poem Out, Out– (he won’t miss them, and it will only take a few minutes). It will be a bit disorienting, but the background you need is that someone has died suddenly. Frost follows the shock of death this way:

Even if we’ve been deeply upset by the recent school shooting in Florida, unless we personally lost someone there, it’s likely that in the days to come we, “because we’re not the ones dead,” will turn to our affairs. It’s understandable.

Before we do, though, I have a story to share that I hope will provide some encouragement. A little bit of hijacking history sheds some light on our current era of mass shootings.

Brendan Koerner, contributing editor at Wired, wrote a book called The Skies Belong to Us, in which he talked about the many airplane hijackings that happened during the 60s and early 70s (during a five-year period starting in 1968, a commercial airplane was hijacked nearly once a week).

Beginning in 1961, senate hearings were held at intervals, and experts declared that hijackings were an unsolvable problem; in order to address it, you’d have to search every passenger. Impossible! Passenger screening, proposed at that first hearing in 1961, was rejected as impractical.

During a 1968 hearing, a senator from Florida raised the possibility of using metal detectors and x-ray machines. In Koerner’s words, “the proposal freaked out the airlines, who cared about profit above all else. Enduring hijackings was much cheaper than installing security.” A hijacking cost an airline very little money, but installing security would be hugely expensive, and might scare away travelers, so it was, therefore, “impossible.”

Hijacking simulation in South Africa

Hijacking simulation in South Africa

The airlines wielded considerable influence in Washington, and through their lobbying efforts, were able to squash any plans for airport screening.

So what changed, that hijackings stopped being a weekly occurrence? It wasn’t that the supply of people interested in commandeering a plane magically dried up. It was, finally, that the cost-benefit ratio shifted for the powerful ones with the money.

On November 10, 1972, three men hijacked Southern Airways flight 49.  They didn’t just want to get flown to Havana, as so often happened; they demanded $1o million, or they would fly the plane into a nuclear reactor in Tennessee. At that point, all of a sudden, legal liability was an issue for the airlines. The impossible problem that had plagued the industry, affecting hundreds of flights and many thousands of people, was sorted out almost overnight. By January 5, less than two months after that hijacking, universal passenger screening was in place.*


Havana was a popular hijacking destination.

Havana was a popular hijacking destination.


Koerner says that while writing the book, mass shootings (our current intractable problem) were very much on his mind. I don’t anticipate an answer magically appearing and being put in place in two months, but I’m nevertheless encouraged. There’s precedent for a solution being found to a problem that so many thought was unsolvable. New ideas like this one should all be examined. Let’s start brainstorming.

(More detail from Koerner here.)

*We all know that airport security screening is a hassle, an expense, and a major annoyance, but it has largely solved the problem it was put in place to solve. I don’t think there’s a similarly straightforward solution just waiting to be implemented that could be as effective with respect to gun violence, but if we can address the way that the current system is being perpetuated, and the values and power structure it is protecting, I believe there is much that can be done.


[Images:, Wikipedia]

2 thoughts on “Before we turn to our affairs

  1. A thoughtful essay, Lori. Thanks so much for that. I do agree that the only way we are going to end these school shootings is for the whole thing to get very expensive for those blocking commonsense gun control. Maybe charge the gun manufacturers for the true costs? I heard a great piece on PBS on what Scotland has done. They have outlawed handguns from ordinary people, and their mass murder rate went down dramatically. We should at least be able to outlaw assault weapons!!

  2. I don’t see a way to construct an argument that “freedom to own assault weapons” is worth the cost in children’s lives. That is likely not how defenders of gun rights are thinking about it. Maybe they use other phrases, in the way that the military uses terms like “collateral damage” when they mean “we killed some innocent people we weren’t aiming at.”

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