The problem with modern life is that something hits you at a particular time but you have no direct way to react to it. You can fuss or oh and ah but then your anger or delight dissipates and you are left feeling, if you remember to feel anything at all, that you have responded inadequately and are the worse for it. It is the disconnect syndrome.
So it was that I read in a vacation-place newspaper last month a brief report on Claire Sterling's investigation of the May 1981 shooting of Pope John Paul II by one Mehmet Ali Agca, since sentenced to life by a Rome court. The thrust of it was that the Bulgarian secret service, which does nothing except on the instructions of the Soviet KGB, had set up a young Turkish terrorist to assassinate the Polish-born prelate for being the spiritual father of Poland's Solidarity movement.
Since I admire Claire Sterling's work on uncovering the facts of international terrorism and since I do not put anything past the Kremlin, I was inclined to believe that brief report on her Reader's Digest investigation. Meanwhile, however, I boiled at the thought of the lousy, slavish Bulgarians doing Moscow's truly dirty work for it. But it was vacation time and, soon, time for tennis, for the sweet hush of sunset in Vermont. Who could maintain a rage against Bulgaria?
Only back in Washington was it possible to read the full Sterling text. What needs to be said is that it demolishes virtually any possibility that Agca was simply a nut, either right-wing or left-wing, or that he was somehow the typical product of a turbulent, avenging Islamic fundamentalist wave.
He was an international terrorist, a low- born student recruited at university and trained in Beirut who escaped from a Turkish military prison while on trial for killing a an editor and took sanctuary for 50 days in Bulgaria before returning to Europe, where he spent some $50,000 in cash living the high life before shooting the pope. In Sofia, Agca had met two men who provided him with the requisite passport and assassination pistol. They are associates of a Turk long used by the Bulgarian secret service to run guns to the terrorists (of all stripes) who almost destroyed Turkey in the 1970s.
As always in these matters, Sterling's account is factual, documented, unattributed and circumstantial in turn. I found her making of the case judicious and her suggested conclusions at the very least plausible. She convinced me it is highly probable the Bulgarians, which is to say the Soviets, contrived "The Plot to Murder the Pope."
The very idea of a state's undertaking to arrange a crime of this boldness is unthinkable to many people, either preposterous at face and in any event beyond courtroom proof or evidence in itself of a hostile political intent on the part of the person raising the question. It takes an imaginative leap or, perhaps better, a realistic leap to contemplate it, unless you come at it from the point of view of the weary cynic who has seen and who excuses everything. 2 Once you are ready to contemplate the idea, there is the further difficulty of accepting its implications. How is one to deal with a government that may have ordered up or encouraged such a monstrous crime? What might a government that would do that not do?
In respect to the Soviet Union, perhaps there should be and can be no special response -- beyond the airing of the charge. Either you reject it or you credit it, in which case you probably see it as confirmation of something very ugly that you already knew. Your reaction feeds into everything else.
In respect to Bulgaria, however, things are a bit different -- and here I come to my Vermont impulse to connect, to act on the anger stirred by reading that the Bulgarians were into murdering popes. Not many of us know much about Bulgaria or have a Bulgaria policy. I was in that category until last Wednesday, when I saw in The New York Times a full-page ad peddling Bulgarian wine.
"Bulgaria," the ad copy said, "is the fifth leading exporter of wine in the world. And for good reasons."
And I thought: Bulgaria is the fifth (or whatever it is) leading exporter of terrorism in the world. And for bad reasons. You may wish to buy their "smooth and elegant" Trakia Merlot (catch the name), "a Monsieur Henri selection with the modest price of less than $3 a bottle." Please do not ask me to share a glass.