The situation in the opening scene of this terrorist thriller could hardly be more tense, but the execution could have a much sharper impact. Your terrorist, however convincing his credentials, might as well hang a sign around his neck saying: I’m a fanatical terrorist! I belong to Al Qaeda! 

He fits the stereotype perfectly, and his behavior is provocative. But what if he were polite instead of rude? Soft-spoken? What if the captain and co-pilot were still uncomfortable but had nothing concrete to base their discomfort on? He’d be a lot scarier. You see, stereotypical villains aren’t real enough to scare us. But suppose Malik is the living, breathing ball of rage you depict him to be, seething with hatred for Americans, and he’s trying to conceal it?  So he keeps his voice low, his words polite, but he’s still seething with hatred.

Now you have something really interesting, a terrorist who’s trying to hide not just his identity and agenda but his essence, and he can’t. He says something perfectly nice and it sounds menacing. Think about it. Even pre-9/11, these guys would not have wanted to alarm anybody or call attention to themselves. So Atta would be polite. (On page 95 he engages in “pleasant conversation” with an older couple; on page 96 he smiles at security guards.) But nobody filled with as much hatred as he turns out to be would be able to pull it off.