What’s legal is not necessarily just

by Finchley Atticus


Hostage Flight 1985
Director: Steven Hillard Stern
Finchley Atticus’s rating: 3/5

Major spoilers ahead. If you’d like to, watch it, then read Finchley’s review.

When I watched Hostage Flight, a made-for-TV movie from the 80s, it made me think about the dilemmas some lawyers face in deciding whether or not to represent a client who have committed repugnant crimes. Of course most lawyers will not end up representing terrorists, but on a general level there is a constant debate, even if it’s internal within the lawyer’s mindset, about whether to represent certain defendants. Outspoken barrister Peter Faris QC has clearly stated why he will never again defend rapists.

Introduce yourself as a lawyer to a lay person and before you know it they’ll soon be asking (or even demanding to know) “How can you represent a guilty person?” even if your specialty is conveyancing, legislative drafting or space law. I remember many years ago watching a US talk show where a Jewish lawyer, representing a person accused of committing hate crimes, said “He probably hates me!!” but still, the lawyer had no qualms taking on the case. In Australia, barristers can’t turn away clients due to the cab rank rule, but if I were a barrister I might find myself surreptitiously scheduling an operation, just like Queen Elizabeth II did to avoid personally conferring a knighthood on Mick Jagger (or so it has been alleged).

As a plane hijacking movie, Hostage Flight is a US TV drama movie that follows the well-established storyline: the terrorist hijackers board the plane, take the passengers hostage, demanding the release of their leader in a foreign prison, demonstrate brutality against the passengers, the motley crew of passengers (a cop, ex-sports star, journalist, the caring husband and wife who survived the Holocaust, the lawyer, the hothead who wants to fight it out with the terrorists right here, right now) plot to reclaim the flight, the terrorists as a concession release some passengers most of whom coincidentally don’t have any speaking parts, and then the ultimate confrontation.

What made Hostage Flight unique in the plane hijacking movie genre is its ending. Actually, two endings (more about that later). You may be wondering, does Hostage Flight end up with the terrorists being put on trial for murder, assault and hijacking? In a way, yes, and this is where Hostage Flight can be cathartic, especially in the wake of 9/11. It’s not surprising that following 9/11, Hostage Flight experienced renewed interest because at the end of the movie the passengers subdue the terrorists and in effect, put them on trial mid-air (the surviving three terrorists are buckled in their seats) as the flight approaches London.

In effect the passengers have appointed themselves judge and jury to take justice in their own hands, with one of the passengers waving a gun captured from the hostages. The “trial” throws up lines that whilst sounding clichéd, do resonate with public debates about criminal justice (or lack thereof) and the nature of the legal system we want to believe will work. One passenger wanting swift justice asks “Maybe they go to trial, go to prison, then what? Get traded for another group of prisoners? Can’t let it happen this time”, and another passenger asks “How can you guarantee they will be even sent to trial?” In which the police lieutenant responds that he can’t guarantee anything, but he believes in due process of the law even though he’s been frustrated by a “murder plea bargained to jay walking”, and it’s not his right to judge.

The trial continues with notions of justice and the law, “Who is talking about the law? We’re talking about justice”. So true, as law and justice are not necessarily synonymous. What is legal is not necessarily just. Remember it was legal many years ago discriminate on the grounds of race. Anti-abortionists will argue that abortion laws are unjust.

It’s clear in the mid-air trial that the terrorists (who aren’t given the right to present their case) will have difficulty getting any sort of fair trial, but as the passengers point out, they had already killed two innocent passengers, and some aren’t willing to “trust the hijackers’ fate to lawyers, petitions and government.” That really hits a nerve, because who will ever forget the controversy caused by the Scottish Government’s early release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in 2009 on “compassionate grounds”, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the Lockerbie plane bombing which killed all passengers, and some Lockerbie residents.

Back to Hostage Flight…the passenger who survived the Holocaust then speaks up, yes the terrorists are brutal but the worst thing they did was to “defile the law, breach the convenient by which we live in peace.” But exacting revenge would make them no better than the terrorists, and would make them lawless, breaking the laws of man and God.

“We must be just.”
“Where was their justice when they killed people?”
“We are taking responsibility.”
“But it’s revenge!”

But what about the lawyer passenger? He’s frank and probably sums up how many of us – lawyers and lay people alike – would really feel in such a mid-air trial. Yes he believes in due process of law but would never under any circumstance defence this “gutter trash” who “make war on civilians, kill women, children, and will seek protection of the very law that they are making a mockery of.” The lawyer concludes they are “beyond protection of our laws.”

Watching the “trial” in Hostage Flight reminded me of “Operation Wrath of God”, initiated by the Israeli Government to target those responsible for the murder of Israeli Olympic team members at Munich 1972. I remember watching an interview with a widow of one of the Israeli team members murdered, and she said that she received no satisfaction that those responsible for her husband’s murder ended up being killed through the Operation. When I recounted this interview to a Christian friend at church (who was a wife and mother of three children), she wasn’t convinced by the widow’s sincerity, saying that it’s easy for the widow to take the moral and just ground after her husband’s murders had “justice” extracted on them. I could sense that my church friend, who lives by God’s laws, had no qualm about the justice meted out to the terrorists who killed an Olympian who was also a husband and father.

Back to Hostage Flight…one of the passengers solemnly declares “We know what we have to do, we just need to guts to do it.” We then get one of two endings. Both are gruesome and violent in their own way. The original ending had the hot headed passenger shoot two of the terrorists after they tried to break loose, and much to his horror in the ensuing struggle, accidentally shot the police lieutenant. Sure a Quentin Tarantino movie is far more gruesome and explicit (Exhibit A: Kill Bill) but remember, Hostage Flight is a 1985 made-for-TV movie.

The word is that this original ending disturbed many viewers, so the producers called back the actors and filmed a second ending, where we see the passengers really have passed judgement. This second ending had the camera pan down aisle, passengers pondering what they have done as they approach landing, and at the back of the aisle you see the dangling legs of the three terrorists, having been sentenced to death by hanging. And viewers thought the first ending was more gruesome?

The full movie with the original ending is on YouTube, as is a video with both endings. You can decide for yourself which ending was just, if at all. Remember though, what’s just is not necessarily legal, and what’s legal is not necessarily just.