Bulletins from chaos

Paul Greenberg

September 20, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

THE MEASURE of the Iraqi force that has stolen, occupied, looted and rampaged through Kuwait may best be indicated not by its invasion of foreign embassies -- somehow that was expected of such an "army" -- but by a small item about the fate of Kuwait's zoo. It seems that Iraqi soldiers have been killing and eating the zoo's deer, antelope and other edible mammals.

Somehow that report says more about the nature of Saddam Hussein's enterprise than all the expert analysis on the news wires. This isn't an army he's sent into Kuwait so much as an organized gang. Your ordinary terrorist gang, however, has a different method of operation; it may butcher people but seldom animals.

Meanwhile, another of the Mideast's capitals is being converted into a headquarters for terror. In Amman, Jordan's King Hussein continues to play his double or triple game, pretending to oppose Iraq's seizure of Kuwait while funneling supplies to Saddam Hussein's regime. Now his majesty is hosting a couple of the more raving terrorists in the Arab world: George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh. Each leads one of the more fanatic wings of the Palestine Liquidation Organization. Both were expelled from Jordan 20 years ago after Black September, when King Hussein recognized they might turn on him. Now they're enjoying his hospitality.

Inviting these types back into Jordan may be the king's biggest mistake since 1967, when he let Gamal Abdel Nasser -- the Saddam Hussein of the '60s -- talk him into attacking Israel. That's how Jordan lost the West Bank and became trans-Jordan again. Perhaps the king believes these terrorists will confine their terror to targets outside his shaky kingdom. That's much the same mistake the Lebanese made when they tolerated PLO bases in their country. Soon enough the PLO had organized a state-within-a-state and Lebanon was vivisected. Conclusion: Those who play with terrorists may find themselves terrorized.

Another much-terrorized town is taking a close look at itself these days: New York City. The killing of a 22-year-old tourist from Provo, Utah, has set off a wave of panicky self-examination -- which is probably better than no self-examination at all. It wasn't just the killing that frightened and appalled but the police report that the killers proceeded directly from the scene of the crime to do a little ballroom dancing.

The result has been the biggest wave of civic introspection since Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in 1964 while an estimated 38 people were said to have looked on from the safety of their apartments in Queens.

City officials point to statistics that show the homicide rate in New York ranks "only" ninth -- somewhere below murder capitals like Detroit and Dallas. But it's not just the raw stats that shock; it's the routine, nothing-personal quality of the murders. This isn't a husband and wife blowing each other away in Houston, or a knifing between old friends in New Orleans. It's an advertising executive catching a round while using a public phone in Greenwich Village, a prosecutor struck down accidentally when he walks into a gunfight between drug dealers within hailing distance of the Bronx County courthouse, and those pictures of little kids heading for school in the latest bulletproof attire. Unreal. And all too real. It makes the Old West look kind of peaceful.

The first consequence of allowing terrorists to roam the streets unrestrained may be counter-terrorists, also known as vigilantes. They already begin to crop up in celebrated cases.

When faced with chaos on this scale, government needs to do more than engage in public relations. Violence on the scale of New York's -- or that of other inner cities from Los Angeles to Washington -- should call forth the same kind of response government makes to emergencies like floods and rebellions. What we have here is a civil insurrection all the more dangerous for being so diffuse; it makes Prohibition-era violence look rational and well organized. Random violence is still violence -- and it needs to stop before America's great cities are Beirutized.

Chaos will spring up where it is allowed to. Edmund Burke put it better: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. It's time to do something.

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