Behind the Scenes with Joel
The macabre story reads like an international political thriller.
Unfortunately, it was all too real.
On December 21, 1988, Pan Am flight 103 lifted off from London’s Heathrow Airport, heading for John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Neither the plane nor any of its passengers ever made it.
En route, the 747 jumbo jet exploded in midair, raining death and destruction down on the Scottish countryside and tiny hamlet known as Lockerbie, killing eleven people on the ground. Some 259 passengers and crew were on board, most Americans. Thirty-five were students from Syracuse University. Every single one of them was killed, not due to weather or mechanical failure or pilot error but because of a bomb planted inside a suitcase.
This horrific event inspired Vince Flynn—one of the best and most successful political thriller writers in recent decades—as he crafted his most beloved character: Mitch Rapp.
Rapp, Flynn decided, would join the Central Intelligence Agency and become its most lethal assassin of terrorists because Rapp’s girlfriend was a Syracuse University student and was on board flight 103 and blown up over Lockerbie.
So this real-life act of terrorism motivated a real-life political thriller writer to create a fictional character with a fictional girlfriend whose lives and destinies were forever impacted by terrorism.
In real life, I was halfway through my senior year at Syracuse University in December 1988. My real-life girlfriend, Lynn Meyers, was a junior there. Indeed, it was on that campus in beautiful—but often brutally snowy and cold—central New York where Lynn and I met and fell in love.
We knew Syracuse students on that plane. They were drama students who had been studying in London for the fall semester and were now coming home to the U.S. for Hanukkah and Christmas.
Lynn had entered Syracuse as a drama student, along with most, if not all, of these very students. Had she remained a drama student, we had no doubt that she would have spent that fall semester studying acting in London—a dream of hers—and would very likely have been on that Pan Am flight.
She was shaken by the thought. We both were. I remember bowing our heads and praying for the families and friends of all who were lost, that the Lord would supernaturally comfort them during a time of unspeakable grief.
The blowing up of that 747 marked me in a way that even all these years later is difficult to describe. So had my own junior year abroad experience the year before, in which I had studied Middle Eastern history and politics for nearly six months at Tel Aviv University. And I was there when the violent Palestinian uprising known as the first intifada erupted in December 1987.
Such experiences intensified my interest in all things Middle East. After graduating from Syracuse, I moved to Washington, married Lynn, and spent the next decade or so working for a series of U.S. and Israeli political leaders.
And then in January of 2001, I began trying my hand at writing my first political thriller.
It was called The Last Jihad. I was finishing the manuscript on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was actually in the process of writing the final chapters at home, about fifteen minutes away from Washington Dulles airport, where at that moment flight 77 was being hijacked and flown over our house and into the Pentagon.
To whom did I send the manuscript and ask for an endorsement? Vince Flynn. He had no idea who I was at the time. We had never met. And I was a true nobody. But he took the time to read it. For some reason he liked it, and he gave me an endorsement, one I will always treasure.
A few years later, the two of us met at a book launch party in Alexandria, Virginia, that Mary Matalin and her husband, James Carville, were throwing for Vince. We traded stories about how we got into writing and had a good laugh. But for some reason I didn’t tell him about the eerie similarities between Mitch Rapp’s backstory and my own.
As I reflect on all this now, a week after releasing my sixteenth novel, The Beirut Protocol, it’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years since I began writing that political thriller about Middle Eastern terrorists and America’s response. For that first book and this most recent one, I’ve drawn on a theme that haunts me to this day, a theme that emerges from my own personal brush with Middle Eastern terror:
To misunderstand the nature and threat of evil is to risk being blindsided by it.
—Joel C. Rosenberg