SUDDENLY, WEST GERMANY ceases to be quite such an inviting prospect for political kidnappers and airborne terrorists. It was not until after prolonged parleying, and the cold-blooded murder of a pilot, that the Germans resorted to force to free the hostages. But in the extreme circumstances posed by the gunmen in the Lufthansa jet, the West German government was altogether right to meet force with greater force.
The beneficiaries were not only the hostages trapped on that particular plane, but all the other travelers who - if the gunmen had succeeded - would have risked being caught in their next exploit. Terrorists who seize aircraft are, by most people's definitions, deranged - but not so deranged that they cannot tell the difference between success and failure.
There have been three examples of hijacking so far this month. The places were, respectively, French, Japanese and German. These incidents are rare in France, where the police are not known for their patience or gentleness. A man with a grenade forced a crowded plane to land in Paris and was ordering it to take off again, for parts unknow, when the police rushed him. The grenade went off, killing a passenger and wounding two others. Recourse to force is always perilous, but it is hard to fault the judgment that an explosion on the ground risked less than one in the air.
Japan - like Germany, but unlike France - brings to these desperate choices a dread of force that is the heritage of World War II. When terrorists seized a jet with 151 passengers over Bangladesh, the Japanese government promptly gave in. It paid $6 million and, more disquieting, freed six convicted terrorists and criminals from Japanese prisons. With the money and the freed convicts aboard, the plane proceeded to Algiers. The Algerian government apparently has not made up its mind about the gunmen. But it is the countries like Algeria, providing safe havens, that keep the hijackers in business. If Algeria now sets the crazy and bloody-minded Japanese Red Army free, it shares the blame for their next hijacking and whatever disasters ensue.
In a bizarre response to the failure of the Lufthansa kidnapping, three terrorists committed suicide in their cells in German jails. They were among the prisoners for whom the kidnappers were bargaining. Perhaps they killed themselves in despair. But it seems more likely that they were attempting a last blow against the law-abiding society of West Germany. This minuscule group of irrational and reckless gunmen has managed to shake profoundly the Germans' confidence in their ability to reconcile order with civil liberties. But as the rescue of the hostages demonstrated, sometimes the resort to military force is the safest and most reasonable choice.