DURING PROHIBITION, a new category of armed American bandits appeared. On country roads or in coastal waters, they would waylay bootleggers hauling illegal liquor and make off with the booty, reaping the profit while leaving the trouble of manufacture to their victims.
These parasites came to be called "high-jackers."
H.L. Mencken recorded the only theory ever proposed of the term's origin: that it came from the crooks' barked order to "Stick 'em up high, Jack." The derivation seems unconvincing, but history has proven the name only too useful. Streamlined to "hijacker," it survived long past Prohibition and found its ugly niche in an era of air travel and terrorism.
Whether investigators ultimately conclude that the same terrorist ring was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax letters, the two episodes have an important principle in common: The anthrax assailants are hijackers, too. They have commandeered the U.S. mail as surely as the 19 literal hijackers commandeered jetliners.
In both cases, the genius of the attacks - people hesitate to use such a word for deeds so sinister, but everyone secretly thinks it - was to hijack sophisticated, costly American systems and turn them against their makers.
With box-cutters, 19 men might ordinarily be able to kill a few dozen people. But by harnessing the U.S. air travel system to their malign purpose, they killed thousands.
The mere existence of airliners was not all they took advantage of. They trained at convenient American flight schools; bought their tickets with clicks and credit cards on Travelocity; found not one but four coast-to-coast flights leaving at roughly the same time. They turned the luxuriant travel system of an affluent people who love to fly into the deadliest weapon wielded on American soil.
With a few pinches of anthrax spores, the biological terrorists have managed to kill some people and sicken others. They might have been able to do the same by flinging the powder into the air at a bus stop. But only by hijacking the U.S. postal system have they inflicted massive economic and psychic damage on the nation.
Though Americans enjoy complaining about the Postal Service, anyone who has lived overseas knows we are spoiled by it. For 34 cents, someone will collect an envelope from our home, carry it thousands of miles and deliver it to someone else a few days later.
Such efficiency requires not only dedicated workers but a sprawling network of trucks, jets and computerized sorting machines of which most of us had only the vaguest notion until about a month ago. Now the anthrax attacks have revealed the hidden workings of the post office just as the Sept. 11 attacks brought to light obscure details of air traffic control. Only by hijacking so elaborate a postal system could the anthrax attackers have so stunningly disrupted American government. Critical buildings in all three branches of government - congressional offices, the CIA, the Supreme Court - have been evacuated. Thousands of people in all three branches have been forced to take antibiotics and think about whether they might be infected - now, or at some time in the future when their guard is down.
In fact, the most significant long-term damage both attacks have done may be to cause Americans to distrust the systems that have served them. No one will board a flight or open the mail again without remembering the terrorists, without wondering whether the plane or letter is our tool or their weapon.
Such low-cost, high-damage attacks cannot be inflicted on, say, Afghanistan: There are no skyscrapers to topple, no extensive mail network in effect, no systems to hijack. The hijackers and the anthrax criminals together probably spent less than $1 million to wreak tens of billions of dollars in economic harm. Now, in an ironic mirror image, the United States is using billions of dollars worth of military and intelligence technology to destroy primitive training camps and hunt rifle-toting guerrillas who hide in caves.
In the Pentagon's sterile jargon, terrorism is a category of "asymmetric warfare." Now we understand what this term means.
It means box-cutters and crudely addressed envelopes doing incalculable damage to a country that spends more than $300 billion a year on defense and intelligence.
In a word, it means hijacking.
Scott Shane is a reporter for The Sun.