A shot of hope went round the world when a special German team rescued the hostages being held by terrorists aboard a Lufthansa jet in Somalia last week. For deliverance provided a rare case of a Western government coping effectively with an undeniable problem.
Effective coping with undeniable problems is precisely what people in all the advanced countries want, but usually don't get from their government. The rescue operation is thus an event of high significance - identifying the central issue of the modern state, and separating in ways contrary to prevailing values the true path of progress from the false ones.
Skyjacking, of course, is an especially dramatic example of the kind of perverse happening that afflicts people all over the developed world. Other troubles are so prosaic that they are taken for granted.
Crime - from murder through robbery and vandalism to white-collar ripoffs - is one. A second is congestion of the air, the water and the streets. A third is constantly rising prices, or inflation. A fourth is poor service in schools, hospitals and all other public accommodations.
The reason these sores fester on without cure does not lie in either poverty or ignorance. A deep truth lurks behind the indignant cliche. "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we . . .?" In our bones those of us in the rich countries know that the knowledge and the means to solve our most nagging difficulties exist in abundance.
The primary difficulty is that governments lack the strength to choose among the abundance of alternate solutions. From Washington through London and on to Tokyo, the path of progress lies in strengthening the capacity of centralized authority to make choices. Whether they be presidents, prime ministers or chancellors, the rulers of the advanced countries are too weak.
But why are they so weak? The answer, I think, lies in the value systems that have grown up along with the diffusion of wealth and enlightenment. Individualism, with its emphasis on democratic politics and the free market, is perhaps the prime value.
From it there derives a respect for minorities that has risen to exaltation. Legislatures, and particularly the television and press, pay extravagant attention to the claims of militants affecting to represent business, labor, women, ethnic groups, veterans, cripples, the aged, the youth and virtually every other definable group.
The reconciling of their claims is further complicated by the notion of participatory democracy - the theory that all groups have right to participate in all decisions all the time. That theory gives virtually every interest group a veto on decisions affecting society as a whole. It undermines expertise, and discredits choices made by a relative few, however properly chosen, disinterested or wise. It frustrates decision-making and promotes instead an almost endless series of battles between rival exponents of consummations devoutly to be wished.
Thus the environmentalists tangle with developers; the cops with the civil libertarians; thos easserting black rights with those asserting white rights. Precisely because all of the parties are right it becomes well-nigh impossible for anybody to referee their battles. The upshot is stalemate.
At present the conflict between solution of national problems and enlightened values is seen only through a glass darkly. It is typical of the model that Jimmy Carter could perceive the need to reform government as a candidate and then, as a President - heavily influenced by Ralph Nader - go for a reformation that diminishes the size and reduces the effectiveness of the office of President.
But such confusion will not last forever. Before long it will become plain that the central struggle in the modern state is between those who would strengthen executive authority and those who claim rights that weaken such authority. At that point I have no doubt that the proponents of strong government will be seen as the good guys, and those of enlightened principles as the baddies.
I am well aware that strong governments have committed the most monstrous crimes against humanity, not to mention such smaller beer as Vietnam and Watergate. It is instructive that the rout of the skyjackers was accompanied by the dubious "suicides" of the terrorists held in German jails.
But the lesson is not that those with the most exalted values will prevail. It is that those who argue minority cases must apply self-discipline, must at some point stop insisting and after a fair hearing cede claims to the rights of the authorities who alone can make decisions in the interests of society as a whole.