AS IT WENT on and on, the attempted coup in Trinidad looked less like a serious effort at revolution and more like a hijacking. The insurgents seized the parliament building, with the prime minister in it, and the television station. But then they ran out of momentum and inspiration. The standoff with the police and the army settled down to the long -- and familiar -- process of bargaining with the gunmen over the telephone.
The significant thing about this attempt is that it didn't get significant support from outside the small sect calling itself the People of Islam. There were no defections from the police or the military, no hints of encouragement from the island's large Moslem population -- not the slightest token of support from anyone. There was plenty of looting, but it was purely opportunistic, like the looting that sometimes breaks out in this country during blackouts. Much attention has been given to the Libyan connection, for some of these people had been taught to use guns by the professional troublemakers there. But we've heard no evidence that Libya instigated the coup or had any role in running it.
The people of Trinidad and Tobago are under many kinds of economic and social strain, for their main industry is oil, and like everyone dependent on oil production they have been hurt by the long slide in prices. But they have a democratic government in good working order and little inclination to jeopardize it by gunfire. Evidently the prime minister, Arthur Robinson, signed a resignation at gunpoint before his captors released him. But no one is ever required to honor a commitment made under duress. Mr. Robinson would be quite wrong, and would do lasting damage to Trinidad's political system, if he honored this one.
The People of Islam seems to be a small and isolated group with a charismatic leader who may have been reacting primarily to a series of angry brushes with the police. The sect has taken up residence in an area from which the police, calling them squatters, have been trying to evict them. They peddle in the streets, which has also brought them into conflict with the police. It was said to have been this kind of friction that led to their outburst.
It's not only small Caribbean countries in which the political order is sometimes threatened by terrorists and their assaults on politicians. Although Trinidad has been through a week that it wouldn't want to repeat, the affair ended well. The winners this time were decency and democracy.