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The Man in the Santa Claus Suit

All I want for Christmas is my constitutional right to publicly petition my government for a redress of grievances.

—Samuel J. Byck

In the evolution of terrorism, the use of American commercial airliners as murder weapons was “pioneered” by a plump, sweaty and quite insane out-of-work tire salesman named Samuel Joseph Byck. Just before 7:15 a.m. on February 22, 1974, the 44-year-old Philadelphian cut a sudden, vicious swath through Baltimore-Washington International Airport, pulling a .38-caliber revolver, shooting an airport security guard in the back, and, before stunned onlookers, leaping over the security check and boarding a DC-9 Delta Airlines Flight 523 to Atlanta. Byck then killed a pilot and wounded another after being informed they couldn’t depart without removing the wheel blocks; in desperation, he grabbed a nearby passenger and shouted at her to “fly the plane.” Seconds later, police bullets smashed through one of the cabin-door windows, wounding Byck. As authorities moved in, he put the revolver to his head and pulled the trigger. Under his body was found a briefcase gasoline bomb. In the investigation that followed this pathetic incident, it was discovered that Samuel Byck had been making himself known to the Secret Service since 1972, after making threats against then-President Nixon’s life. (He’d also been sending bizarre, rambling tapes to such public figures as Jonas Salk, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, and his idol, Leonard Bernstein.) Rejected for a government loan from the Small Business Administration, Byck had focused his resentment on Nixon as the figurehead of the U.S. capitalist system and obsessively began to plot his downfall in the most literal terms. In 1974, he hatched a plan he dubbed “Operation Pandora’s Box,” which he outlined on a tape he mailed a few hours before the hijack attempt to Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson: “I will try to get the plane aloft and fly it toward the target area, which will be Washington, D.C. I will shoot the pilot and then in the last few minutes try to steer the plane into the target, which is the White House.” Nixon was actually in the Executive Mansion at the hour of Byck’s would-be assassination, hunkered down in mid-Watergate. (Oddly enough, less than a week before, on February 17, Army private Robert Preston stole a helicopter from Fort Meade, Maryland, and flew it onto the White House grounds.) Later, it was also discovered that Samuel Byck had been arrested protesting in front of the White House the Christmas before the assassination attempt dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He appeared onstage in the same Santa suit 20 years later — as a character in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins — and Sean Penn is reported to play Byck in an upcoming biopic produced by Alexander Payne, director of the political farce Election. God Bless America.

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