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A Moment to Savor

October 13, 1985

At long last and in one fell swoop the frustrating cycle of impotent responses to the outrages of terrorism has been broken. The four Palestinians who hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and viciously murdered one of its American passengers will now face the justice that it seemed almost certain they would be able to avoid. For a rare change, something has gone right in the civilized world's fight against terrorism. This is a moment to savor, for it promises retribution for crimes that heretofore have gone largely unpunished. The moment ought to be savored as well in the realistic expectation that it may not soon recur.

The Reagan Administration, justifiably proud of its action that plucked the four pirates from the sky, speaks boldly of its determination to continue apprehending and punishing terrorists. That determination has always existed. What has been absent are feasible opportunities to give it effective play. The apprehension of the Achille Lauro hijackers was made possible by an unusual conjunction of circumstances. First, both Tunisia and Greece refused to grant landing rights to the Egyptian airliner carrying the terrorists, thus denying a destination for their escape flight. Second, the time that elapsed between the arrival of the terrorists in Egypt and their departure many hours later allowed U.S. forces to position themselves for a successful interception. Finally, cooperation between Italy and the United States assured that the terrorists would be delivered not into the friendly hands of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but into the jurisdiction of legitimate authorities.

So there was a lot of luck in this operation, the luck of not having the haven of a Tehran or Beirut airport nearby, the luck of having the right American forces close to the scene, the luck of having two friendly countries, the United States and Italy, in agreement about what should be done. To cite these things is in no way to diminish either the skill of the operation that was conducted or its importance. It is simply to note that the chance to repeat that accomplishment may not soon arise.

The seizure of the terrorists will not, of course, halt or even deter further terrorism. Almost certainly, in fact, this action will become the proximate excuse for the next assault by Palestinian terrorists on American or Italian targets. But for now at least four terrorists have been taken out of circulation, and their sponsors have been left vulnerable to public exposure. For now, there is good reason to expect that justice will be served. And for now, the American people and all those who have been demoralized by the seemingly uninterrupted string of terrorist successes and escapes have had their spirits lifted.

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