ANALYSIS: On This Day: A Plane Bombing and the Case Against the Rush to Label Everything 'Terrorism'

Parts of the wrecked plane were recovered and stored in a Colorado hanger for investigation. (Credit: FBI)

Parts of the wrecked plane were recovered and stored in a Colorado hanger for investigation. (Credit: FBI)

Sixty-two years ago today a swarm of FBI agents raided the home of a man who they had come to suspect was behind the bombing of a passenger plane in Colorado that claimed 44 lives, including that of an infant, less than two weeks earlier.

Had it occurred in today's threat landscape and with the 24-hour news cycle, the tragedy would almost certainly have been labeled an "act of terror" within hours by television pundits, U.S. officials and/or politicians. And for good reason -- why else would nearly four dozen people have been killed apparently indiscriminately in America's heartland? To say anything else would be a failure to "name the enemy" or to be soft on terrorism, critics would say.

But as the unusual, grim 1955 tale shows, it's not always that simple.

On Nov. 1, 1955, United Airlines Flight 629 suffered a catastrophic event 11 minutes after take-off from a Denver airport and crashed into a sugar beet farm, killing everyone on board, according to an FBI history. Within days investigators discovered evidence of sabotage and then what appeared to be the remnants of an explosive device.

The tail section of the plane (bottom right) was found in a Colorado farm, far from the rest of the plane. (Credit: FBI)

The tail section of the plane (bottom right) was found in a Colorado farm, far from the rest of the plane. (Credit: FBI)

In search of a potential motive for the bombing, the FBI began to comb through passenger and cargo information. A break came when checking the travel insurance policies taken out on the passengers. One woman, Daisie E. King, had three separate policies taken out on her, with her son Jack Gilbert Graham and other relatives named as the beneficiaries.

In addition to the potential insurance payout, the FBI said, "It was learned that upon the death of his mother, Jack Graham was to receive a substantial inheritance. It also became known that Mrs. King and Jack had frequently quarreled over insignificant differences." Graham turned out to be a career criminal, bootlegger and scammer.

Jack Graham seen in this undated photo. (Credit: FBI)

Jack Graham seen in this undated photo. (Credit: FBI)

Interviews with neighbors and other relatives indicated that prior to King's flight, Graham gave his mother a wrapped package, supposedly a tool set for Christmas, to take on the flight to Alaska. They said that the day of the flight and for days after, Graham couldn't eat or sleep and was seen walking back and forth in his house and outside.

Armed with a strong potential motive, Graham's criminal history and physical evidence from the downed plane, FBI agents interviewed Graham at FBI offices in Denver on Nov. 13, 1955, 62 years ago today, as other agents searched his home. Graham said he had failed to buy the tool set for his mother and maintained his innocence, but when faced with the evidence against him, the FBI said he eventually confessed.

"He said that he had used a time bomb composed of 25 sticks of dynamite, two electric primer caps, a timer, and a six-volt battery," the FBI said.

Graham attempted to claim insanity but was deemed sane by four psychiatrists. During a session with one doctor, the FBI said Graham confessed again to the crime, saying he had slipped the explosive device into his mother's luggage.

Graham said he was well aware there were dozens of other people on board the plane.

"[T]he number of people to be killed made no difference to me," Graham reportedly said. "It could have been a thousand. When their time comes, there is nothing they can do about it."

Graham was found guilty of murder and executed by gas chamber in January 1957.

Flash forward 60 years and in the wake of a shooting at a Texas church on Nov. 5, there was a flood of messages on social media demanding that the attack be labeled "terrorism" -- and the insinuation that it had not yet been labeled so because the alleged shooter was white. (A similar reaction was seen after the deadly Las Vegas shooting weeks before.) In previous cases, especially when the alleged attacker had a Muslim-sounding name, politicians or authorities seemed quicker to use the "terrorism" label.

The 1955 story is illustrative of this point: In any case, no matter the attacker's name or ethnic background, the rush to call something terrorism is a tempting but flawed impulse.

Terrorism speaks to motive. If you don't know the motive -- a determination rarely made by investigators within hours or even days of a deadly incident -- you cannot definitively call something terrorism, even if it really, really looks like it. Like a plane suddenly blowing up over Colorado.

While there's no standard definition of terrorism across the U.S. government, much less internationally, it's commonly held that terrorism's end goal is a political one: usually a change in government policy, brought on by pressure from a deeply frightened public following horrific acts of violence -- hence "terrorism." For instance, ISIS wants the U.S. to get out of the way so it can build its twisted version of a so-called "caliphate." Al Qaeda, among other things, wants the U.S. military out of Saudi Arabia and other "Muslim lands." Both groups kill for a political purpose -- to weaken the resolve of Western governments and people. Timothy McVeigh, America's most infamous domestic terrorist, said that his 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building was intended in part to "send a message to [the U.S.] government" and was "not personal."

The 1955 airplane bombing in Colorado had what we would say today were all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack, but Graham did not seek to change policy, nor to weaken any government's resolve. His only aim was murder and money. 

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