Saturday, February 18, 2012
A Time of Chaos and Paranoia by Geoffery Gray
The topic is "D.B. Cooper", who hijacked of Northwest Flight 305 shortly after it left Portland en route to Seattle the day before Thanksgiving in 1971. After picking up a ransom of $200,000 he parachuted out of the back of the 727 and was never seen again. He became a famous American outlaw, the legendary Robin Hood of the sky, the subject of poems, ballads and rock songs; up there in the criminal annals with Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and Bigfoot.
Cooper spurred one of the biggest manhunts in law enforcement, as spy planes orbited over search areas, and soldiers and generations of FBI agents on the ground waded through snow, mud and rain in one of the most remote forests in the nation. For four decades, agents, detectives, reporters, treasure hunters, amateur sleuths and others have hunted for clues that might reveal who the hijacker was. But no effort has yielded definitive results. His identity is still a mystery
Cooper’s was a transcendent crime. In one jump the hijacker was able to make the good guys root for the bad guys; his crime came to symbolize one individual overcoming technology, the corporation, the establishment, the system. Even lawmen were impressed with the cleverness and courage of the getaway and hoped Cooper would never be caught. “You can’t help but admire the guy.”
He developed his own cult following, several websites that continue to follow the investigation and every year on the anniversary of his crime worshippers toast his feat and keep the legend going at a party in forest of southwest Washington State.
Like quests to find the Holy Grail and the Lost Dutchman Mine, however, the hunt for D.B. Cooper is an odyssey that tests the boundaries of obsession, and the farther along the path one gets, the stranger and stranger things happen. It’s called the “Cooper Curse” by those who’ve felt it. Is it real or something we create then blame when we fail to find out what happened? Or is it the by-product of a moment in time defined by chaos and paranoia?
When Cooper jumped in the fall of 1971, the nation was at war with itself. In government buildings and on college campuses, bombs went off. In cities, looters roamed as riots raged and buildings burned. At demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, protestors were arrested by the tens of thousands. A defeat in Vietnam was imminent. The nation was also mired in recession. Labor strikes crippled the workforce. Unemployment soared. So did the crime rate. Prisons were overcrowded and taken over in riots. Communes were built. Cults formed. Otherwise normal teenagers ran away from home, and had to be “deprogrammed” after they were brainwashed.
“The music is telling the youth to rise up against the establishment,” Charlie Manson said during his trial for murder. “Why blame me? I didn’t write the music.”
Mobs had formed. The underground was rising. Terrorists were homegrown. Communist fears were were born. Inside J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI a campaign was afoot to compile information on protestors and expose the anarchists. Phones were tapped. At the center of the spookfest was President Nixon. “I just want to ask you one favor,” Nixon told top aide H.R. Halderman. “If I am assassinated, I want you to have them play Dante’s Inferno, and have Lawrence Welk produce it.”
Skyjacking was then a national epidemic. Throughout Nixon’s term, there had been roughly a hundred hijackings of American airplanes, and over half the attempts had been successful. The airplane had become the next stagecoach, a crime scene for dangerous jet-age robberies.
Like no other innovation, the invention of the airplane and the evolution of American airpower were testaments to the nation’s technological virility and ethos. Air-power had been instrumental in winning the World Wars, in ushering in a new horizon and a new age. Boeing had built the 747, the jumbo jet. And yet, in one impulsive action, the lone skyjackers was able to show the fallibility of the costly flying machines. What good was the power of the Air Force in a country like Vietnam where American soldiers were slaughtered under the canopy of the jungle? What good was flying a jet to vacation in Miami when so many flights were getting rerouted to Castro’s Cuba?
The skyjacker himself was a kind of schizo-transcendentalist. On board a jet, taking all the passengers and crew as hostages, the skyjacker was able to create his own society. He became his own head of state, directing others- the pilots, stewardesses, the lawmen, the mayors, the governors, the C.E.O.’s - to act upon his whims. In one flight, the skyjacker went from nobody to somebody. And with reporters from newspapers, radio and television stations monitoring the drama, the culprits achieved celebrity.
Dr. David Hubbard, a psychiatrist interviewing nearly a hundred airplane hijackers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, described taking over an airplane as a holy experience,. “The skyjackers”, he wrote, “seemed intent to stand on their own feet, to be men, to face their God, and to arise from this planet to the other more pleasing place.” Hundreds of skyjackers and terrorists have taken over airplanes.
Only one remains unknown: D.B. Cooper.
Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper: Crown Publishers, N.Y.C., 2011