What is to be done about terrorism?
The question frustrates presidents, prime ministers, kings and ordinary frightened, angry citizens in Europe, the Middle East and North America.
The question is all the more vexing because the obvious answer is: Not much, not quickly, not definitively.
Terror as a political weapon has been around for more than 100 years. It finds a home in democratic societies because their citizens are not willing to pay the price of government oppression necessary to eliminate it. It flourishes in soil enriched by deep religious, national and political hatreds. It is implacable; it is the enemy of reason, compromise and civilization. It is, literally, the belief in all or nothing.
Listen to Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal:
"That the Zionists used force to grab for them-selves a piece of my Arabic homeland is not in my eyes actually the crime. Rather, for me the crime would be if we were to allow these Zionists ever to leave our homeland alive again. That is my philosophy.
"I, Abu Nidal, view myself as the answer to the misfortunes of the Arabs."
No political compromise on the West Bank of the Jordan will ever satisfy the likes of Abu Nidal. He will forever remain the enemy of Israeli and moderate Arab alike, devoted to the creed of pain and death and revenge like those his foot-soldiers afflicted against innocent men , women and children in his latest outrages at the Rome and Vienna airports.
The best to be hoped for is that eventually there will be a political arrangement, eventually the ordinary people of the area will assert that compromise is preferable to unending terror, eventually the ground will become a less fertile breeding place for terrorists.
But those eventuallys are years and years away. Terror is a grim fact of contemporary life. Terror is not a threat to the national security of Israel or any other state, but it is, as it is intended to be, terrifying. Terrorists succeed not only when they kill but also when they incite their victims to repay in kind.
It is hard for a nation to avoid vengeance, especially when its people have been victims of terrorism for 2,000 years. Israel, in a state of war with most Arab states, has always felt compelled to respond, though as Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin mournfully asked the other day, "Why must we always be the only ones to reply?" The answer lies in the other affected nation's situations. For the United States to take military action against Libya, Abu Nidal's current den and sponsor, would be to strike a probably fatal blow at such hopes for peace as currently remain. American hopes of playing a broker's role between Israel and the moderate Arabs would be diminished; the already shaky Egyptians would tremble more. American revenge would give Abu Nidal what he wishes most--a plunge toward further strife, with lessened hopes for compromise.
The European nations, acting from self-interest tinged no doubt with a residue of their ancient anti-Semitism, have too often shrunk back from exercising even the most modest obligations of nations regarding the arrest, retention and trial of Palestinian terrorists. As Secretary of State George P. Shultz has pointedly explained, more vigilance and backbone by the Europeans can abate the threat.
But not eliminate it. Nor can revenge annihilate it. It is a curse of the modern world, to be dealt with by the afflicted nations as much in concert with other civilized nations as possible, with nerves as steady as one can muster.