Although I loved running amok in the orange groves that surrounded my Israeli hometown, I grounded myself for a whole week in 1976. I did it to show solidarity with the 246 Air France passengers — many of them my compatriots — held hostage in Entebbe, Uganda.
Having just made it halfway through my elementary school — and having been kissed by two girls – the last thing I wanted to do was stay home. Yet my brother and I holed up from the moment we heard about the hijacking on June 27 until my father woke us up on July 4 to announce that Israeli commandos rescued most of the remaining hostages (three died during the raid and the rest had been released a few days earlier).
Looking back, I realize how much terrorism and counterterrorism have changed in the past four decades:
Terrorists: From open-books to complicated creatures:
Then: Terrorists tended to be clear about their motives and demands. Take Wilfried Böse, the German Revolutionary Cells founder who led the Entebbe hijacking. During the crisis, which commanded OJ-like international media attention, he raged against Western Imperialism, including Israel’s occupation of the West Bank/Gaza, and demanded the release of 53 prisoners around the world.
Now: Terrorists tend to have murky motives and issue no demands. Take Omar Mateen. Despite gaining insight into his psyche — through such means as mapping his online footprint and interviewing his ex-wife — we may never nail down why he killed 49 club-goers in Orlando. Speculations range from sexual-orientation self-loathing to Islamic State homage-paying to media-spurred copycatting. Who knows, maybe he just lost it? The fact that he issued no demands during the three hours in which he played hostage-taker may be a particularly disturbing sign o’ the times.
Aviation: From prolonged flights to long lines
Then: Across the globe, about three airplanes were hijacked every month. Every month. This epidemic inflicted the United States as badly as the rest of the world. More than 130 American flights were diverted to Cuba in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Many of the skyjackings occurred after unscheduled layovers. Nonstop flights would nonetheless stop at airports along the way to drop off and pick up passengers, who were many a time terrorists.
Now: We stand in long TSA lines at many airports. So what? We’re safer. Oh, and our flights stick to their advertised routes.
Interactions: From Stockholm Syndrome to strict separation
Then: Hijackers and hostages often bonded. Coined in 1973, the term Stockholm Syndrome described hostages sympathizing and sometimes even trusting their hijackers. In Entebbe, French hostage Michel Cojot — about whom I’m producing a PBS documentary with Penn State University faculty members Richie Sherman (co-producer and director of photography) and Anita Gabrosek (editor), as well as University of Florida Associate Professor Gayle Zachmann (co-producer and historical consultant) — turned this concept on its head by befriending two of the terrorists. Speaking English with Böse and Spanish with The Peruvian, a Palestinian who lived in Latin America, Cojot gained a strong measure of influence. This Holocaust survivor convinced the hijackers to not only provide essentials such as malaria pills and mattresses, but to release 148 of the 246 the hostages.
Now: Forget about it.
Killing: From talk to action?
Then: Hijackers tended to be big talkers, but they did not always back it up. Böse, for instance, never fulfilled his threats to kill hostages. Even when the Israeli commandos stormed the Entebbe airport and he had a shot at upending their mission by mowing down dozens of hostages, he avoided killing innocent people. He threw his grenade out the window and pointed his machine gun only at the soldiers, who sprayed him with bullets.
Now: Online and elsewhere, we find many big talkers who appear headed down the path of mass destruction. Although often radicalized, many of them never walk the walk, so to speak. But some do, killing and injuring people in concert halls, nightclubs and other places we should expect to be safe. Thus, in a land that values freedom of speech almost as much as life itself, we face a mind-bending, gut-wrenching dilemma: How can we create a more effective system to prevent talkers from taking action while maintaining our democratic ideals?
Social media: From nothing to everything
Then: I grounded myself without tweeting about it or uploading a selfie to Instagram. I never even told anyone about it — not my buddies, who suspected I found new friends, and not the two girls, who assumed I was hiding to delay having to choose between them. During and for many years after Entebbe, the perpetrators and passengers had no Twitter-like ways to communicate their thoughts and observations with the world. Maybe that’s how we’ve ended up with several myths, including the incorrect notion that an Israeli construction company, Solel Boneh, had built the Entebbe airport terminal and furnished the military with the blueprints. In reality, it was the released hostages — particularly Cojot, who had access to every part of the building — who delivered the layout through interviews with Mossad agents.
Now: No one would hold a protest without telling the world about it. Indeed, many would skip the act and go straight to yammering about it on social media. Today, I’d update my Facebook status with something like “grounding myself to show solidarity” while standing in line at Starbucks. Terrorists, meanwhile, make sophisticated use of the internet. Mateen checked and updated his social media sites during his rampage. And the Islamic State produces Madison Avenue-like digital material. We’ve never seen this before: slick terrorist-recruiting tools that project a contemporary sense of self-awareness, even humor. Yes, scary.
Look, the last thing I want to do is paint some romantic picture of terrorists “back in the day.” It was just as ugly. They murdered thousands of innocent people, including children. But on Entebbe’s 40th anniversary, I realize that counterterrorism has become increasingly complex and challenging on many levels.
At the same time, I also realize that, while our world’s changing fast, one thing has stayed the same — how we respond to terrorism remains up to us.
In the years after Entebbe, many countries adopted the Israeli response. Some of their counterterrorism operations succeeded, some failed. Yet this collective effort — along with the discontinuation of unscheduled layovers — soon put an end to frequent hijackings.
What can we do today to fight terror, stop lone-wolf mass shootings, combat the Islamic State online and on the ground, and maintain our freedom?
To a larger extent than we may realize, it’s up to us.
After Entebbe, I never grounded myself again. On 9/11, I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on a newsroom TV and spent the following week reporting on the aftermath. Recently, I received a text about the Orlando massacre in a midst of Cojot documentary post-production. I can no longer sit and wait. I feel anxious to do something. Don’t you?