Resigning ourselves to terrorism

August 01, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The key difference between the terrorist and the criminal is that the terrorist is an idealist and the criminal a practical man. The terrorist runs risks the criminal refuses because he or she believes that the terrorist cause transcends the individual.

It provides meaning in the terrorist's life. It may give meaning to death. When the terrorist motivation is religious as well as political, not only is the cause more important than life, but life is unimportant. The Hamas suicide bomber in Israel is convinced that his act gives him eternal happiness.

Political idealism can be almost as powerful, and not only in those cases like Marxism in the 1930s, where the cause is apocalyptic in quality, promises to bring secular salvation and is a surrogate for abandoned religion.

Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II conducted a form of terrorism, in that their self-abandon was literally terrifying to those who opposed them. The sentiment they expressed before their ultimate missions was, as one of them wrote, that "my honor has never been greater."

Press and political denunciation of terrorists as evil, cowardly, sponsored by "rogue" states and so on, and the belief that the United States could deter terrorists by instilling fear in them, are irrelevant to such motivations.

Even American militia terrorists, whose views are of an extreme unsophistication -- a paranoid cluster of half-baked notions about American history and constitutional law -- honestly think they are saving the republic from betrayal and subversion. Hence, their acts of violence are justified, and worth the risks they take.

Terrorism is the weapon of the weak against the strong. The anti-American terrorist would like to wage war against the United States, but can't. So he does what he can, with the means available.

Moreover, there is not a great deal that is going to be done about vTC terrorism. To do even airport and aircraft security professionally and comprehensively costs an amount of money which companies and taxpayers have not until now been willing to pay.

Just after something terrible happens, people say they will support any measure against terrorism. But when the bills come in, taxes are raised, the inconveniences to travelers pile up, and it's another matter. Unless more attacks follow the TWA disaster, American airline security will again fade, just as it did after Lockerbie.

The answer is political

Passive security in any case is not the real answer. Neither is penalizing the supposed sponsor, the "rogue state." This is appealing because it seems an active response. But the record shows that it accomplishes little. The real response has to be political, but a positive political solution usually is not available.

So long as there is no comprehensive political settlement between Israel and the Arabs, for example, Middle Eastern terrorism will continue. Israel's experience demonstrates the case. No country has been tougher with terrorists than Israel. Its toughness with the PLO led to one invasion of Lebanon, in 1982, and toughness with Hezbollah led to another last spring.

"Terrorist country" in southern Lebanon has been under continuous Israeli occupation and control since 1982. Israel until recently occupied Gaza and the West Bank. But Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in May precisely because Israel's voters thought terrorism out of control.

Mr. Netanyahu will be no more able to end terrorism through police and military measures than Yitzhak Rabin was able to do it by "breaking bones" during the uprising in Gaza. Gaza eventually had to be given back to the Palestinians. Terrorist attacks go on.

The United States bombed Libya in 1986 because of a terrorist attack killing two Americans in Germany. According to Washington, Libya then blew up Pan Am 103, killing 259 people. The U.S. has been as tough with Iran as it knows how to be, but went to this week's terrorism "summit" in Paris saying that Iran still sponsors terrorism and demanding still more measures against Teheran.

All of this does not make an argument for doing nothing. Good police work stopped the terrorist bombings in France last year. It has worked against the IRA. It looks as if it may produce a solution to the Atlanta bombing.

But we must recognize that terrorism is something Americans are going to have to live with, just as others have had to live with it. Americans in the last few days have been saying, "We used to be safe here." But we've made a lot of enemies.

The United States could get away from Middle Eastern terrorism if it pulled out of the Middle East, but that is not going to happen. As for our homegrown terrorists, who are a product of the peculiar political climate inside the United States today, there's no way to get away from them. They are part of what we are, or of what we have become.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/01/96

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