Terrorism Loses Its Romance

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, December 14, 1984; 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This was Charles Krauthammer's first column for The Washington Post. We republish it in conjunction with his Dec. 18, 2009 piece reflecting on 25 years of column writing.

The latest hijacking, this time of a Kuwaiti airliner to Tehran, marks an end of sorts for terrorism. Not an end of terrorist acts. These will continue so long as they can be carried out with little jeopardy to the terrorists or with marked effect on the victim.

Shiite terror has done well on both counts. Tehran set free earlier hijackers, and the latest batch has emerged remarkably unhurt from the "storming" of their plane. And last year it took only two suicidal fanatics to persuade the United States and France to quit Lebanon. (Conversely, in the 8 1/2 years since Entebbe not a single plane bound to or from Israel has been hijacked.)

Terrorism this successful will continue. This week's drama marks a different end, an end of the idea of terrorism in theWestern mind, where it has enjoyed a long and pampered history.

Today, after Tehran, it is perhaps hard to remember this earlier romance. But it existed, in two forms. One celebrated the act itself. Jean Paul Sartre, for example, writing in defense of FLN terror during the Algerian War, said that "to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man." Any European -- like any American today, even the humblest AID auditor -- would do. Authenticity had its demands.

Few, however, were so tough-minded. To celebrate political murder as in itself an act of liberation was, to paraphrase Orwell, an idea so morally stupid that only the greatest of intellectuals could believe it. Hence the other, more modest school of apologist: it did not exalt terror, it merely excused it. The method was to look beyond the dead body of the victim to the "root causes" -- oppression, desperation, frustation (lives there anyone without a reason to murder?) -- that drove the killer. That sympathy, bred of an excess of understanding, was most evident in widespread toleration of Vietcong, IRA and PLO atrocities, among others.

After the Kuwaiti hijacking, the culmination of half a decade of Khomeini-inspired terror, that kind of thinking will be difficult to sustain. Barbarism so raw and unadorned is immune to romanticizing. The Tehran incident provided an anatomy of terrorism as graphic as, say, "The Gulag Archipelago's" exposition of the soul of Soviet communism. The idea of communism in the Western mind has not survived Solzhenitsyn's demonstration. Nor can the idea of terrorism survive the torture/murders at Tehran's airport.

Of course, Sartrean idealization of the terrorist act was rare anyway. The more important result of the Tehran drama is the death of any lingering interest in the cause. Press coverage of the hijacking was remarkable in that respect. The press did explain the demand for release of terrorists who had previously blown up American, French and Kuwaiti installations. But there was no great inclination to follow the chain of causes much further.

Why? For one thing, the chain does not lead very far. The grievance of Shiite terrorists is the existence of heresy, a broad complaint. They are at war with so much (secularism, the West, modernity itself) and so fanatically (this week the revolt against Westernization took the form of pushing lighted cigarettes into the face of an American businessman) that they represent nothing more than Islamic nihilism. And nihilism is not a very attractive, let alone illuminating, explanatory principle.

Second, state sponsorship, the dominant feature of terrorism in the '80s, has removed much of the glamor. In the '30s communist revolutionaries lost their sheen when they gradually became instruments of Soviet Realpolitik. Libyan assassins, Bulgarian umbrella murderers and Shiite bombers are driven not by root causes but by reasons of state. State sponsorship turns romantic heroes (remember Leila Khaled?) into spies, mercenaries and ordinary hit men (think of Abu Musa). State-sponsored murder resembles nothing so much as organized crime. But perhaps the most important reason we no longer seek empathic understanding of terrorists is that horror has its limits. A weariness has set in. Terrorists have gone to the well of Western sympathy once too often. Murder as a form of advertising works once, perhaps twice. The audience tires on repetition. By now, the grievance, if any, is known, and murder becomes simply murder.

It is hard to imagine that anyone would write today, as Diane Johnson (characterizing a theme of a Dom Delilo novel) wrote in 1977: "Terrorist action is not so much an act of lawlessness as a comment on the rules." After Khomeini, we have come to prefer our commentaries written in something other than blood. We have even grown to like the rules, like the ones against torture. Terrorist esthetics are no longer interesting.

Terrorism will no doubt continue. But now it will have to do so on its own, without apology, without extenuation, without even curiosity from the West.

© 1984 The Washington Post Company