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.