When I was 9 years old my father had the brilliant idea of sending me to Mr. Jimmy McLin, a boxer generally suitable for hero-worship since he could take a normally prudent boy and within a year or two could turn him into a stout manly specimen able to manage his tiny fists.
I did nothing to discourage the faint rumor that I was one hell of a fighter, even though this meant I had to keep boxing in matches at summer camp, which really was tiresome, especially as it was necessary to appear enthusiastic.
Possibly it was the smell of boxing gloves--a stink not quite equaled by any other bodily process--that turned me against boxing, even as I persisted at it. I did learn, at least, that I could be as violent as anybody else provided I had a good excuse, and I may say I never once failed to find one.
Now I am older, I wonder how many men in Washington earnestly hope a burglar enters the house so that a well-placed bullet may teach the clod a lesson.
Which brings us, of course, to the general topic of terrorism, especially since I noticed a recent condensed account of "world news" consisted almost entirely of terrorist events here, there and yonder, and have not been able to get it out of my head since.
It strikes me, upon heavy thought, that whereas two boys are likely to be uncorrupted by fantasies of the brain, and are almost devoid of religion, honor and so on, a terrorist is almost certain to have a lot in his head.
No boy that I ever knew was prepared to fight much past the point he started to hurt, so the contest was not going to be very dangerous. Usually one would start to cry and that would be that.
A terrorist, on the other hand, does not fight for either of the two reasons a boy fights; that is, because he thinks he can win easily, or because he is even more terrified of running away than of fighting since (a kid soon learns) the worst that will happen to him is a black eye, which (if he has normal boyhood skills) he can later explain to his friends with epic embellishment.
But a good terrorist has no real idea he will win. He expects to lose, just as a Christian peering at a lion's tooth expected to lose.
The terrorist may be somewhat suicidal to begin with, or he may not. But he apparently thinks the crown of martyrdom is worth the somewhat brief (after all) inconvenience of the grenade blast. With luck he will not even know what hit him and in some cases he may not be doing much with his life anyway. Besides, three of the terrorists who killed the athletes at the Munich Olympic Games were returned home free, so there is always the chance he may both accomplish his mission and return to a hero's welcome with hide intact.
To be a good terrorist, it seems to me, you have to believe heart and soul in the justice of what you are doing, and it helps, I imagine, if you do not have the awkward habit of seeing something funny and starting to laugh (a tendency that has held back the careers of many, it is believed).
Where you and I make a mistake, surely, is in drawing on our experience as children. Schooled by Jimmy McLin we learned to give the impression we were quick with our fists, since we saw it was less trouble to look fierce than to walk around scared of the big boys. This is common childhood experience and usually affects our judgment of terrorist events. Dangerously.
It is sickening, especially when the weak are the hostages. It was quite disgusting even when grown men (as in the Iranian seizure of hostages) are held.
The first reaction is to regard terrorists as mad and probably bearded and dirty as well.
But it may help to reflect what it would take to make us, ourselves, seize a plane and wave explosives about, knowing how hazardous that is. At the very least, I think we would have to believe we were Joan of Arc's nephew with a good many angels buzzing about us.
There is no point arguing, so far as I can see, with people who are certain of the divine rightness of their cause. Particularly at the point of a gun there is not likely to be time for a grand examination of the justice of a cause that may take many weeks to explore fully, and which (even then) is never going to change the terrorist's original conviction so much as a jot or a tittle.
As a practical matter, we have had a great many examples, by now, of terrorism and hostage-taking. Various approaches have been tried. Is it possible, reviewing how things turned out, to come to any conclusions about the best way to deal with terrorism?
There are many who would gladly let Bess Truman, Miss America and Amy Carter's puppy dog all get blown to smithereens by a terrorist's grenade rather than "negotiate with a thug."
This approach, if my general impression of the facts of past terrorism is correct, commonly results in the upholding of principle and the loss of the victims.
It's odd, when you think of it, that so little public attention is given to detailed review of past incidents of terror, to see how those events were handled, and how they turned out.
If it should prove, upon review of the evidence, that a high thundering saves lives in the long run, even though some are lost in the short run, then I would say that is the best general approach.
If, however, a review of terrorist incidents should show that telling the terrorists to go straight to hell (along with other inspired suggestions) does not in fact work very well, then I would consider other approaches.
Self-righteousness and confidence in one's wisdom to manage crisis is all very comforting, of course, especially if one does not greatly care who gets killed as long as it's not at this dandy desk. Our own hostages in Iran were easily expendable in comparison with the claims of national honor unless, of course, you happened to be a hostage yourself; in which case you were likely to rephrase your definition of national honor to include (wherever feasible) your own survival. It is truly surprising, in such cases, how often the claims of national honor and personal survival seem perfectly compatible.
If the life of a victim is to be worth some concern, then it probably makes a difference whether those directly handling the crisis are learned in the history of terrorism in our day and are keen to the importance of human life, or whether they lack imagination in general and facts in particular. And the rise of terrorism is such that we ourselves might someday be stupid enough to be at an airport, in a store, on a sidewalk, in a car, in a train, at a party.
I'm persuaded that some who rant along in their gaseous, half-cocked way chiefly lack the imagination to comprehend terror and terrorists alike, and lack patience to endure anxiety, preferring quick, neat (fatal, of course) solutions that require no more brains or sweat than an appeal to whatever bombast they happen not to have fully forgotten from the fourth grade.