Billy and Charlie, both sixth graders and avowed enemies, had one hell of an argument the other day. Billy, a 45-pound weakling, had been doing some sneaky things, and later drew a "line of death" in the dust of the school playground, daring Charlie to cross it.
Charlie, a muscular hunk of 100 pounds or more, went to the edge of Billy's line and then slowly crossed it.
When Billy came running out, Charlie slapped him down a couple of times and bloodied his nose, dramatically trampling Billy's line. And as their schoolmates looked on, Charlie warned Billy that if he did any more sneaky things, he'd come back and beat him up some more.
Although Billy had little discipline at home, Charlie was a very disciplined child and didn't like being forced to do what he'd done to Billy, but said Billy's sneaky ways had left him little choice. The other day, Billy supposedly did something else sneaky, and threatened to bust Charlie's little sister in the mouth if he bothered him again. And now the other school kids, listening to Charlie's chest-beating and wondering what the wimp will do, are finding the schoolyard is getting to be a very dangerous place to play.
It would be very easy to replace Billy and Charlie with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and President Reagan because, in many ways, these two leaders are behaving very much like schoolboys.
Two weeks ago, crossing Qaddafi's self-styled "Line of Death" in the Gulf of Sidra, American aircraft retaliated against a Libyan missile attack by striking Libyan patrol boats and a missile radar site.
Three Libyan vessels were lost and the missile site was demolished in the attack. While Qaddafi's "Line of Death" extending Libya's borders by 150 miles into the Gulf of Sidra has not been honored by most nations since it was drawn up two years ago, the presence of the Sixth Fleet in the region was widely interpreted as a provocative move, aimed to trigger Qaddafi into some ill-conceived action.
As a string of terrorist acts has occurred in the days since the attack, including the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin and a Trans World Airlines flight en route to Athens, the United States and Libya have pursued a battle of insults with an extraordinary exchange of name-calling.
At his news conference last Wednesday night, Reagan called Qaddafi "the mad dog of the Middle East."
From his tent headquarters in the desert near Tripoli, Qaddafi called the United States "a crazy superpower" and Reagan "an old man."
By Thursday, the United States was saying that there is "incontrovertible evidence" that Libya was linked to the attack in West Berlin that killed an American serviceman and a Turkish woman.
Qaddafi has denied that Libya was involved in either the discotheque or airplane bombing.
Meanwhile, the Reagan administration has rattled the war sabers for even tougher action, positioning itself for possible military action against Libya by retaining two carriers in the Mediterranean, despite West Germany Chancellor Helmut Kohl's caution against the United States taking military reprisals against Libya.
In response, Qaddafi has toughened his stance, saying he would retaliate by issuing orders for attacks against American targets all over the world if the United States attacked his country.
It is lunacy for Libya, with its estimated 63,000 military personnel and 350 surface-to-air antiaircraft missiles, to think that it is any match for the United States' armed forces.
Conversely, there is a disturbing juvenile machismo for the United States to pursue so doggedly this war in which it is transforming a serious international problem into a peculiarly American one.
For even though the current level of fear of international terrorism is reaching dangerous proportions, among the known consequences of this repeated use of violence is that it makes the United States look like the kind of guerrilla bully we accuse Qaddafi of being.
Meanwhile Qaddafi, in the eyes of some of his allies, looks like David fighting Goliath.
But more fundamentally, attacking Qaddafi only takes us farther away from working toward resolving issues at the heart of the problem -- the enfranchisement of the Palestinian people and a negotiated settlement and treaties between Israel and the Arab nations.