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I.

"So you're saying that none of you works for the CDC or something?" asked Sarah.

Five other people had shown up for the meeting, more than she had expected, but they all had found it through the links in the news articles about Walt Atkinson. Nobody had responded to the e-mails she had sent to the authorities, journalists or medical researchers. Maybe her tone had been too aggressive.

"Then I'm afraid we have to switch to plan B: More Walt-style actions."

Gary interrupted: "Did you read the articles? The headline of this one simply says: 'Man drives truck onto runway' and that's basically the whole article. It barely says anything about his motives, only that he 'seemed confused when questioned, citing concerns about an East-Asian virus as motive for his attack'. I appreciate what he did as much as anybody else here, but I don't think we need to repeat this utterly pointless action, which I do not think had the effect he wanted or, frankly, any effect except from bringing him into custody."

"Well, he caught our attention,” replied Sarah. ”He's the reason we are all here now. But still we need to generate way more attention quickly because we're seeing that the institutions that ought to be acting do not act although they already know what we know and more. That means, we need to alert the public and that means we need to go viral. Since you do not go viral with carefully written think pieces, plus we could not place them anywhere anyway, we need to get creative, just like Walt did. People don't want to hear about abstract bad things, but they love to hear about bad people, so if we want people to listen to us, we need to go bad. And yes, I heard your point, Gary, and agree that Walt hasn't achieved that much. That is why we need to go really bad."

"Really bad? Could you please elaborate?"

"I was thinking of kidnapping somebody or maybe a whole bus of people or something. I think that is probably the most effective non-lethal way of getting attention. For those of you that are not based in the US, Rory and Ali N., that is probably not a viable option since you are on your own, but driving trucks on runways is better than nothing as we have seen. Now what do you think, Gary, Cassy, Phil?"

II.

"Is this the end?", Charlotte thought. She had survived a childhood of poverty in China in the 1950's, she had survived the cultural revolution by fleeing to Taiwan, leaving her family behind on the mainland, and now there were these people waving guns at the plane.

"But" she nostalgically said to herself "I had it all." She remembered how she had met Bob, how she had come to the US with him, how she had become Charlotte because that was easier to pronounce for their American friends. She turned to look at Bob and Bob looked at her. From the look in his eyes she could tell that he was thinking of their children and grand-children, just like herself.

One of the group approached them: "Could you please hand me your phones and close the blinds?" 

"Very polite she is for a terrorist", Charlotte thought. 

"And put these on." Smiling, the woman handed them black sweaters, just like the one she was wearing herself. It said "Walt-Atkinson-Fan-Club" in bold white letters. Charlotte wondered who that Atkinson guy was. Maybe someone imprisioned, for terrorism or some more ordinary crime.

III.

Sarah had had to kick Gary from the meeting, but the rest had stayed. Rory and Ali had agreed to act as spokespersons online and to publish the manifesto if the others should not get the interview.

Phil had come up with the plan. He had a job at the airport working in flight control: "Planes are a difficult target, but perfect for attracting attention and they are not too difficult to get into either. I've spent too much time thinking of ways to pass security in my free time. I saw it as an intellectual challenge and it will be interesting putting it into practice. I'm confident I could get guns into the airport and then we just board the plane as regular passengers. In my opinion, it is best to start while the plane is still on the ground because then we don't risk getting shot down. After all, we don't want anybody to come to harm."

IV.

Somebody had turned on the TV in the newspaper’s office. The anchorman was saying: "For passengers on board flight PI714 to Wuhan, the trip turned into a nightmare before it even started."

"Great, another terrorist attack and everybody's watching as if we don't already waste too much attention on terrorism", Rebecca thought, worrying that her new piece on gene editing would get even less attention than she had expected if it came out the same time a plane got hijacked on the local airport.

Her editor entered the room, accompanied by a police officer. They walked straight towards her desk.

"Hello Rebecca."

"Is this important? I'm working."

"Rebecca, the terrorists at the airport want to talk to somebody from the science section. They specifically asked for you. They threaten to execute hostages if we don't send someone."

"What?"

Now the officer spoke: "We think it is best - for the hostages - if we give them what they want. Would you be willing to talk to them on the plane? We wire you, of course, so you would not be all on your own and it would give us potentially vital information on the group."

Everyone in the room had turned their eyes on her. She could not resist, it would be unjournalistic or something to skip such an opportunity.

V.

"So far, nothing is known about your motives and there is a lot of speculation going on. Are you affiliated with any larger organization?"

"No. We are TORPA, the Terrorist Organization for Raising Pandemic Awareness. There are just the three of us." It was Sarah who did the talking for the group while Phil and Cassy were guarding the door and patrolling the aisle.

"That seems like a rather unusual name and goal for a terrorist group. Are you concerned with any specific pandemic?"

"We worry that the novel coronavirus in Wuhan is not taken seriously. It has been more than a week now since its existence is known to the world and there are still planes leaving to and from that city like this one we are in now just as if nothing had happened."

Rebecca had written a short article about that virus just the other day, basically copying from press releases. She was trying to remember.

"But from the little that we know about this virus, it is not more dangerous than the flu, which experts tell us to worry about much more in comparison. The SARS and the MERS pandemics, caused by similar viruses, bad as they were, did not kill that many people on a global scale. Why do you disagree with the experts here?"

"Oh, I don't. This is probably a relatively harmless thing, but what if the experts are wrong? Should we only do something if a new virus has a tiny label attached to it saying 'Airborne HIV'? If I am right and we continue to do nothing, millions of people die and the economy crashes. If I am wrong, we put systems in place that can be used again for the next real pandemic. It is super easy to prevent a pandemic while it is still an outbreak in one single place although I for one am unsure whether it hasn't escaped already: you just need to suspend travel to that one region. As we see it, the government has one fricking job right now: to close the border and keep it closed for some time, which, by the way, is something the president's campaign was based upon anyway, and now, the first time that something actually dangerous, which actually will steal our jobs, is going to cross it, he does absolutely nothing. I mean, keeping planes down is so much easier than building a stupid wall."

"But again, this is nothing public health officials aren't aware of. Why do you think you are smarter than them?"

"They seem unaware of the concept of expected value, so that is why I am smarter than them."

Rebecca realized that she should ask more critical questions that would not just serve as cues for "this intelligent, yet obnoxious person" as she was thinking of her.

"But why did you choose this way to advertise your position?"

"I have no doubt that there are people in Washington and elsewhere trying to gently nudge the relevant decision makers to do something, but obviously without any success. We need more than nudges."

"And that gives you the right to just hijack a plane full of people?"

"It is necessary. The question ought not be: 'How do we dare?', but 'Why aren't there riots?' Also the passengers don't have to fear anything and if we are right to worry about the virus, this is probably in their own best interest."

"So you do not plan to actually execute any hostages? You threatened to do so."

"No, of course not! What would be the point of that?! That would be completely counterproductive. But we had to say something to stop the police from entering."

VI.

The editor did not like what he was reading, not at all, and he did not want to get accused of providing a platform for terrorists.On the other hand, this would generate clicks and didn't people have the right to be informed? Since he could not change what had been said, he only wrote down an appropriately condemning title and hit "publish":

The Hijackers are Pseudo-Scientists Gone Too Far, Interview Reveals

The hijackers of flight PI714 are not a group of hard-core terrorists, but ideologically neutral people, who are concerned about a new virus that appeared in China. Security sources have revealed their identities to this newspaper: Sarah Gunderson, Cassy Smith and Filomelo Garcia. Little is known about them, only that Garcia was working at the airport and supposedly planned the attack. The terrorists demanded an interview with our science reporter Rebecca Fox on the plane. She reports that all hostages seemed to be unharmed and as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

Rebecca Fox: "So far, nothing is known about your motives and there is a lot of speculation going on. Are you affiliated to any larger organization?"

Sarah Gunderson: "No. We are TORPA, the Terrorist Organization for Raising Pandemic Awareness."

VII.

Bob junior hugged his parents after TORPA had surrendered and the passengers had been brought to their waiting relatives. "Mom, Dad, Uncle Qiang has gotten very sick. I don't know what is going on over there, but I think it's better if you don't go."


 

Disclaimer:

Sorry for writing something so controversial. Before you get super-angry at me, I'd like to clarify that I of course do not propose anybody should have done or ever do anything like what happened in this story. I wouldn't even argue for more aggressive marketing for pandemic prevention. I was rather thinking that, if somebody happens to like this story, they could share it with the comment: "What would have happened in a world where carefully written think pieces went viral all the time? What would you do if I told you that you could be part of a community where this is already the case?"


 

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