America Going Home

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. The reason for the delay is that we have had a bomb threat. Please pick up all hand baggage and evacuate the aircraft, Immediately.

With a Chem 20 final in the morning and a bomb threat that afternoon, Friday, January 23. became a rather eventful day.

We are going to take you, a few at a time, to pick out your baggage and open it. We'll just poke around a bit and throw it right back on. Sorry for the inconvenience. There's nothing we can do but throw up our hands.

Throw up our hands-an interesting idiom. The modern day bandit operates in the realm of jet airplanes. But blow up a plane? Preposterous. At least that was the reaction of the sixty passengers on United's flight 249 from Denver to Portland. The threat seemed very distant until the FBI men spoke: "Do any of you know any reason why someone would want to kill you? Can you think of any reason in your private lives to make someone want to do this?" The bomb scare was a dramatic event and the passengers tended to be detached, to view the drama as spectators, rather than as participants. The tone of the FBI questions made it clear that this was no TV drama; it was real life.

During times of external stress, such as during the Northeast power blackout, people commonly band together in a close-knit fraternity until the threat eases. This bomb scare was a similar situation. There was an immediate threat to the lives of the passengers and crew and this common danger unified the group; there was a sense of solidarity through shared experience. The threatened community was not completely closed, however, Passengers were not allowed to leave the immediate area but police, airline, and FBI officials freely came and went.


The effect of this one-way movement was to heighten the shared experience of the passengers even more. Passengers congregated in small groups to discuss their emotional response to the bomb scare, to talk about helping fellow passengers to ease the inconvenience of the time delay, and to share sympathy for missed appointments. There was very little verbalized hatred for the unknown person responsible for the bomb threat; the passengers concentrated on helping each other by talking about their own circumstances in their unfortunate, but accepted situation.

A life-threatening bomb scare is nothing new, of course. The international nuclear bomb threat forebodes death just as effectively as a bomb on a passenger airplane. The nuclear threat, too, is just as uncertain and as uncontrollable to each individual as the threat to Flight 249 last week. President Kennedy had talked of "a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads" which threatens "every man, woman, and child." But unlike the airplane bomb scare, the nuclear threat is internal: we have created it ourselves. As a self-created or at least sanctioned agent of destruction, the nuclear threat evokes no community sense of solidarity. It is largely ignored, as the airplane bomb scare could not be, in daily activity.

Kenneth Keniston has pointed out that the present college generation is the first to grow up under the threat of nuclear destruction. It is encouraging to think that some of the motives for current radical attitudes among young people may come from a sense of solidarity which evolves from this shared danger of uncontrollable death. The analogy with Flight 249 is incomplete in many respects, but the shared commitment to survival, self-sustaining among the flight passengers, is a lesson which may well be adapted to the international community, particularly among the present young generation.

A SMALL ROW developed during the bomb scare which involved me and gave cause for reflection. After boarding the plane in Denver, I had put the book I was carrying, The Quotations of Chairman Mao, Peking Press, in the seat pocket in front of me. When the announcement came over the loudspeaker to evacuate the plane, I left without the book. An hour and a half later, while the luggage was being searched, an FBI agent approached me:

"This your book?"

Amazing, I thought. He's good. He picked me out of the crowd and now he's got me classified in Red.

"Do you believe this stuff?"

He was really worried. I could appreciate the concern and the seriousness of the matter, but his questioning was annoying. Me a subversive Commie bomber? I can't agree with their motivations for interrogating me, but if the FBI pursued every "lead" like this one they're better than their TV counterparts.

After extracting my life history and an account of my activities that day, the FBI agent returned the book and left. Another hour later we were finally airborne; no bomb was found. A short time into the flight, a stewardess came up to me and asked what book I had that caused all the trouble. I handed my copy to her and she laughed.

"Oh, I thought it was Mein Kampf, or something like that."

THE READINESS with which the FBI agent and the stewardess were willing to ascribe suspicion on the basis of my reading material amazed me. Opinions that are welcome in the free exchange of ideas in the university community become potentially subversive in the eyes of the FBI. The agent who questioned me seemed genuinely disappointed that I had no friends in Denver whom he could check on. My refusal to discuss my political philosophy with him evoked only a queer chuckled response that I must be "anti-Establishment." There came a point when the bomb scare seemed less threatening than the FBI and I was genuinely relieved to get airborne again. On the return trip I left Chairman Mao behind.