At high noon in Washington, there just might not be enough room in this town for Claire Sterling, her right-wing supporters and her left-wing detractors, all of whom are taking her book, "The Terror Network," very seriously indeed.
Just now, however, respite has been found in a hotel bar, and a couple of Scotch-and-Perriers.
"I'm mad," she says, stabbing at the tablecloth with a knife, for emphasis. "My dander is up. I'm naked and alone out there in the middle and the stray shot is getting at me."
Claire Sterling, a free-lance Rome correspondent for 30 years, once a member of the Young Communist League in her Brooklyn College days, has written what may be to foreign policy what George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty" has been to economic policy in the Reagan administration. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who has declared terrorism our No. 1 priority in foreign affairs, sent copies of a piece she wrote on terrorism to all the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The CIA, on the other hand, says there's little data to support her thesis that the Soviet Union is behind the terrorism which has plagued the West since the late '60s.
She writes of the CIA: "A more cowardly source would be hard to find."
Then again, she also writes: "Few of the terrorist bands mentioned in this book can be shown to have had direct links with the Soviet Union; but not one could have gotten started or kept going without help from Havana, or the Palestine Resistance, or both. They probably didn't realize at first that this would hook them into a closed circuit necessarily passing through Moscow."
And now she's on a whole different closed circuit, which is Washington, where terrorism is something we read about in the foreign news, unless we choose to associate it with zanies from presidential assassins to the Hanafi Muslims taking over the B'nai B'rith offices.
"I don't want to sound like I think there's a communist under every table," she says, "but if you start with the fact that . . ."
And she's off into describing the East German funding of political activities of West Germans who later would become part of the Baader-Meinhof gang, and she wonders how it was that the shah of Iran's visit to Berlin in 1967 could have brought 250,000 people into the streets, which she finds to be part of the same pattern as demonstrations 14 years later by 15,000 people in Frankfurt against the U.S. presence in El Salvador . . . all of it woven into a hateful tapestry of Irish Republican Army provos boring holes in kneecaps with Black and Decker drills; with the kidnap of Arab oil ministers in Vienna in 1975; with the rocketing of an Israeli school bus; the installation of a right-wing military government in Uruguay; thousands dead in Turkey, hundreds in Italy; the Black September massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich; Lenin's dictum that "the purpose of terror is to terrorize" . . .
And now, of course, the book has brought what Sterling likes to call "Fright Decade I" to Washington.
The New Republic's senior editor Michael Kinsley spent lunch yesterday arguing about the book: "My luncheon partner was berating me because I didn't see the book as saying that the Soviets were behind it all. On the left-wing side, Alexander Cockburn, in the Village Voice, is talking about some clique of Claire, Arnaud de Borchgrave, Robert Moss (the last two, authors of the novel 'The Spike') and Michael Ledeen. I must admit that one of the great scenes at the inaugural party we threw here was Arnaud and Claire huddled in a corner, conspiring is the only word for it, she in her dark glasses and long scarf."
And, said Kinsley, people are bound to talk when "the book comes out just when Haig is making accusations of Soviet involvement in terror. But that was only a commercial decision by the publisher, to hurry the book into print." w
At the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, Michael Ledeen, a friend of Sterling's, said that wasn't the issue at all: "It came out very close to the Haig statements and a lot of people thought it was timed that way, but that's not true." The ruckus, says Ledeen, is caused by the fact that "the left wing denies the existence of an interlocking international network of terrorists. The CIA has been saying for some time there's no evidence. There is, but it would be surprising if they changed their minds, because then they'd look as if they were politically motivated."
In his most recent column in the Village Voice, Alexander Cockburn calls Sterling "the tarantula of terror," and recommends that she should be an adviser to a TV series about Jesus Christ: "The Romans, a la Sterling, were quite right to take a tough line with the Galilean so-called 'carpenter,' given the ideological training he received from his Essene 'advisers.'"
In short, we have a new tempest for the old Washington teapot.
"I would like to find out who in the CIA and the State Department are the cause of this confrontation, challenging the position of Haig and Reagan," she says. "I'd also like to know: do Reagan and Haig mean to use the extreme right to clobber the left on this issue? If so, I part company with them. I'm deeply surprised at this controversy. I've been surprised at the depth of sentiment in my own circle, the moderate left -- the profound refusal to accept the facts that disturb their view of the world."
Some right-wingers see this book as ammunition against the Russians, though others, she says, are suspicious of her left-wing activities as a student before World War II: "The Conservative Book Club turned my book down because I wasn't conservative enough." On the other hand, liberals worry that the book will aid and comfort people who want to bring back everything from full-scale cold war to Joe McCarthy.
But as she says: "How can you ever defend a free society by concealing the truth?That would be dishonest."
Then again, it's a truth that no Western government has been willing to back her up in, until Haig's statements on terrorism. No intelligence service has spoken in her favor, either. "They won't come out and say it publicly, but they'll say it privately," she says.
Consequently, her book is littered with disclaimers, as the one that comes after a long section on a Frenchman named Henri Curiel, who she links with terrorists and spies all over Europe. She writes: "The questions still nag at Western security agents, who to this day haven't been able to pin a piece of totally incriminating evidence on Curiel."
She had to merely assume the guilt of a friend of Curiel, one Andre Haberman. She writes: "Arrested at once, Haberman refused to confess and was eventually released."
Disclaimers are accompanied by stylistic hyperbole: documents aren't just fakes, they're "egregious" fakes; a Russian forest of 2,000 acres is "enormous." Booby traps are carried aboard planes by "laughing South American girls." And the world's most famous terrorist, Carlos the Jackal, brings "the French government to a standstill for 101 hours, and then to its knees. In Paris he speeded up its ignominious capitulation by reducing Le Drugstore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain to rubble, tossing a couple of grenades, killing two and injuring twenty, unmanning the French Establishment and half the population of Paris."
Rubble? With two grenades? It is suggested that these were either grenades the size of fire hydrants or it was a very, very small drugstore.
"Yes," she insists, eyes flaring behind lightly tinted sunglasses, which she keeps on indoors, a touch of European flavor there. "Rubble. You should have seen the photographs."
And the discussion meanders off into the great welter of fact cum-hypothesis, fanaticism and fear, that terrorism is designed to inspire. And, in the hands of a generation of terrorists equipped with the very latest in munitions, and the most absolute in philosophies, it does just that.
"It's a world where people aren't allowed to say what they know; where things don't stand up in court; where the truth is obvious, even if it can't be proven.
"I just wish that the people who attack the book would read it, so we could discuss it on its merits," she says.
You would hardly know from her worry and preoccupation over Scotch and Perrier in a noon-time bar in Washington that in Europe, Fright Decade I has come to an end, and, as she writes in her epilogue, "the terrorists had failed in their prime objective: democracy did not abdicate in Europe."
Nevertheless, she says: "I'm being shot at from right and left. And the CIA is out to discredit my book."
If Washington, on a European scale, is a mere teapot when it comes to tempests caused by terrorism, it's still a tempest if you're inside the teapot.
Then again, as a woman who fell from faith in communism, but also found the Red-hunting of Joe McCarthy "a curse," she has spent a lifetime in the middle.
"I'm a journalist," she says. "My fun in life is to be able to pick at people. I want to go on picking at people.