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The Good Ship Byzantine

October 10, 1985

After two days of fearful uncertainty the Italian liner Achille Lauro has been set free by its Palestinian hijackers, but not before the terrorists first won a promise for their own safe departure from Egypt. While this brings to a welcome end the ordeal of the more than 500 passengers and crew members aboard the ship, it also virtually removes any chance that the terrorists will face proper judicial punishment for their crimes. Among those crimes was the senseless murder of an elderly and wheelchair-bound American passenger. If it was intended as a grandiose political gesture, the ship's seizure was a fiasco. But in demonstrating once again that heinous acts can be committed almost risk-free, the episode represents yet another sordid victory for terrorism.

The terrorist mind is not necessarily a rational mind, but presumably those who took control of the Achille Lauro anticipated some conclusion to their venture more impressive than simply being able to escape with their lives. It may be that the hijacking fell apart and had to be considerably shortened when the nations of the Mediterranean showed a rare degree of international cooperation. No state, including Syria, whose hands have long been bloodied by association with terrorism, would permit the liner to sail into its territorial waters. With all ports closed to them the ship's captors had little to gain from prolonging their escapade.

It may also be that the terrorists had originally planned to leave the ship when it made a scheduled stop in Israel, but that something unexpected prompted them to earlier action. An alternative suggestion is that the real purpose of the piracy, carried out by a few men said to be members of a fringe group sponsored by one or another radical Arab state, was to embarrass Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The trouble with this theory is that it was an Arafat emissary who helped negotiate the release of the Achille Lauro. Whether by chance or design, Arafat can now advertise the outcome of the hijacking as a political gain.

Egypt has its own self-interested political reasons for agreeing to let the Palestinian pirates go free, but in striking a corrupt bargain with terrorists Egypt has only repeated the behavior of a dozen other nations before it. By proving once again that terrorist threats are likely to produce craven responses, the hijackers of the Achille Lauro have sown the seeds for future outrages.

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