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Hostages of an Ancient Way of War : Modern France Vs. Middle Ages

March 16, 1986|William Pfaff | William Pfaff is an American journalist based in Paris.

PARIS — France votes for a Parliament today under a threat from the 11th Century, where seven, possibly eight, of its citizens are held hostage.

Shia terrorists claim that they've already killed one French hostage, although this has not been proved. They want France to free other Shia extremists held in French prisons--and they want France to change its national policies. The French reaction has been to defy blackmail in principle while, in practice, to look for a way to appease the terrorists and recover the hostages.

The Islamic Jihad says that it has killed one prisoner, Michel Seurat, a life-long specialist in Middle Eastern affairs. This same Shia group is presumably holding five Americans as well, possibly six--the body of diplomat William Buckley, whom the terrorists claim to have killed, has never been found.

Responding to the terrorists, the French reportedly offered to release or lighten the sentences of some of those in French prisons. But a shift in French foreign policy--its support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War--is another matter.

The government has obtained the release of two Shia activists recently expelled from France to their native Iraq, where they were wanted as opponents of the government. This expulsion was a blunder by the French and it presumably provoked the killing of Seurat.

All this has produced intense public attention, although there has been little political exploitation of the matter in the campaign to elect a new National Assembly. The Socialist Party does not seem to have been decisively affected by the hostage situation--although it is impossible to be sure because polls already indicated that a coalition of conservative parties will take power from the Socialists, while Socialist Francois Mitterrand will remain as president until his term expires in 1988.

The opposition parties' willingness to close ranks against the terrorists' major demands has shut off controversy--for the moment.

Conflicts provoked by Islamic terrorism affect the United States just as sharply. Members of the terrorists' moral universe hold the West to be Satanic. They believe that they must avenge wrongs the West did not even know it had committed.

A senior French diplomat told me a few months ago that the Syrians he dealt with were, "charming and intelligent, extremely likable; but it is the Middle Ages there, you know." It is the Middle Ages of the 11th Century Assassins and Albigensians, when Good and Evil, incarnate, were at war. No place for compromises.

Yet the French government has spent the last six months trying to compromise, a policy consistent with past French efforts to strike deals with terrorist groups. The old bargain offered was that terrorists in France would be monitored but not arrested as long as no terrorist acts were committed in France. The consequences of this for other countries were ignored. And it is not helping the hostages this time.

The French worked through the Syria, Iran and established Shia groups in Lebanon to make a bargain on behalf of two hostages kidnaped a year ago and two others taken last May. After initial compromises, including allowing some arms to be shipped to Iran, the outcome has been a fiasco. Four more Frenchmen, a television news crew, were kidnaped Saturday, March 8.

But almost every attempt everywhere to cope with Middle Eastern kidnaping or terrorism has proved a fiasco. Israel, whose terrorist policy has been an eye for an eye, traded Palestinian prisoners--hundreds of them--when Israeli hostages were at stake. The United States bargained both for the Tehran Embassy hostages in 1979 and during last year's TWA hijacking. It has also loudly threatened reprisals without doing much, thus incurring the onus of both concessions and counter-violence.

Lebanese factions have their own method for dealing with kidnaping, a technique employed by the Soviet Union last September when four members of its Beirut Embassy were kidnaped and one was murdered. This is retaliatory kidnaping, a tactic that Americans may not be willing to stomach. According to French reports, relatives of the kidnapers were in turn kidnaped, one was mutilated and the evidence was sent to the terrorists. The Soviet prisoners were turned loose.

One practical conclusion is unpalatable, although it is one the United States has been acting on: to treat Americans held in Lebanon as casualties in an undeclared war, for whom there is little or nothing usefully to be done.

The attempt to bargain raises the stakes and gives the kidnapers what they want. Reprisals demonstrate to terrorists that Western governments act to their provocations and that they, the terrorists, dictate events.

There are, at this moment, some 2,000 Lebanese of all ideological and religious camps "missing." Only their mothers weep for them. There are also planes that crash accidentally; there are murders having nothing to do with terrorism. Terrorism is no more than one more hazard of modern life. Our protection against it is to decline to reward those who profit from it.

Press and television have a responsibility that they have so far handled badly. Kidnapings and hijackings repeatedly have been turned into melodramas, with governments cross-examined as if their inability to solve the problem were a matter of cowardice. This is culpable fantasy and a disservice both to those journalists among the current hostages, and their colleagues on the scene, the reporters who know that while they practice their trade in the 20th Century, they could die in the 11th.

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