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U.S. Harbors 'Congenial' Terror--the IRA

May 04, 1986|WILLIAM PFAFF | William Pfaff is a Los Angeles Times columnist based in Paris.

LONDON — The British government's ability to deal with international terrorism is blocked when other states harbor terrorists, celebrating them as warriors in a grand cause. The most urgent case in mind in London at this moment is not Libya or Syria, but the United States of America.

It all depends, doesn't it?

As this is written, the British authorities wait to learn whether the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee will finally, after nine months, allow full Senate debate on a redrafted treaty between the United States and Britain allowing the extradition of IRA members accused of murder. At present, murder committed by an Irish nationalist in Ulster or England is considered by the United States an act of legitimate political dissent, meriting U.S. protection.

Since there are Americans--and liberal Democratic and reactionary Republican senators alike--who are prepared to give asylum to terrorists so long as they are of a congenial nationality, let us give thought to this matter of the kinds of terrorism Americans approve.

Let us consider the principle of the thing. After all, Menachem Begin as well as Eamon de Valera, the former leaders, respectively, of Israel and Ireland, were each terrorists in their day. So, by most definitions, were Ho Chi Minh, Marshal Tito, Jomo Kenyatta and other heros of our time, who were subsequently admitted to the world's governing councils.

A terrorist is one who wages irregular warfare against an established government or society. He or she acts outside the laws or conventions of war, wearing no uniform, employing the forms of violence available to the weak. He or she attacks, from secret, the institutions of established order, the soldiers and policemen of the enemy, the institutions symbolic of power.

Begin wrote in 1952: "If we could succeed in destroying the government's prestige . . . the removal of its rule would follow automatically. . . . Throughout all the years of our uprising, we hit at the British government's prestige. . . . "

The Arab terrorists of the present day are attempting to undermine and destroy America's prestige, and the IRA to do the same to Britain's.

Are they justified in killing civilians as well as soldiers? The Yugoslav partisan or French maquisard of the war years attacked mainly military targets to resist an occupying army. Palestinian and Irish terrorists today also claim to be resisting foreign military occupation. Both, however, repeatedly have killed civilians.

The IRA has bombed pubs, stores, hotels, and crowds doing their Christmas shopping, in London and other British cities. The Zionist underground of the 1940s killed civilians, notably in the case of Begin's Irgun Zvai Leumi's attack on the Arab village of Deir Yassin during the 1948 war.

Present-day Libyan, Lebanese Shia or Iranian terrorists claim that American or Israeli civilians are just as much their enemies as are soldiers. For them, as for regular troops attempting to put down a guerrilla insurrection, it seems impossible, or unreasonable, to distinguish combatants from the civil population that harbors and sustains those who fight. For the modern Middle Eastern terrorist, moreover, the United States represents not only a military occupation but also a cultural, even religious, usurpation of the moral order commanded by God.

The American who rejects terrorist killings of civilians must reconcile that position with the one that he or she has taken with respect to the Allied bombing campaigns against the Japanese and German populations during World War II, which were meant strictly to terrorize, to destroy civilian morale. There is, alas, nothing new in the strategy employed by terrorists today.

To make such distinctions and comparisons is annoying, undermining the simple enthusiasms that dominate public life. The practical distinctions currently drawn by Americans between forms of terrorism are racial and tribal. The country must do better than that. The United States cannot effectively attack terrorism while defending it, or deplore civilian killings while conniving in them.

No IRA murderer, or alleged murderer, has yet been extradited from the United States. Thus is anarchy "loosed upon the world," as Yeats said, "the blood-dimmed tide." Those who wish to contain terrorism, not feed it, cannot afford the compromise with terrorism that the United States now practices.

As Americans consider how to deal with countries that harbor the terrorists who kill Americans, they need to give a serious answer to those British who ask how Britain should deal with a country that gives refuge to the IRA, a movement that has killed 1,714 people in the United Kingdom since 1969 in the course of a war against the democratic institutions of that nation. Until now, the U.S. Senate has chosen silence.

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