Occasionally, in the writings of those who are sometimes called radical feminists, you can find the assertion that most of what ails the world can be attributed to men and their insatiable need to be either heroes or lovers. We are told that men are invariably out on some macho bender of which rape and war are the usual examples. As extreme as these theories may be, the current hostage crisis makes them seem understated.
The air is ripe with macho oaths. First came innumerable calls to retaliate against the Shiite hijackers, although just how and against whom was never enunciated. Like all idiotic plans, the details are left for others -- as if the nonsensical can be rendered sensible simply by rounding up the usual experts. Second came a reiteration of what is apparently the cardinal rule of hostage situations yelled with appropriate "Remember the Alamo" fervor: Never give in to the demands of terrorism!
But why? Because, we are told, this would only encourage the terrorists to strike again. Maybe. But this proposition, which is asserted as if it were an immutable law of nature, is hardly beyond debate. The Israelis, after all, never give in to terrorism and yet get hit time and time again. You could argue -- but never prove -- that there would be even more instances of terrorism if the Israelis followed a different policy, but this is like saying that there would be more murders without the death penalty. Maybe yes, maybe no. No one knows for sure.
The principle of never caving in to the demands of terrorism presupposes that the terrorists are rational (not to mention informed) and would therefore know in advance that it makes no sense for them to do what they want to do. But the Shiites who hijacked the TWA flight primarily to force the release of some 800 of their co-religionists being held in Israel were clearly long on passion and short on logic. All they needed to do was wait, since the Israelis had already announced that they would release them all in stages.
Originally, though, the Shiite hijackers had an additional demand, later abandoned at the apparent insistence of Nabih Berri. That was for the release of 17 of their brethren imprisoned in Kuwait. The Kuwaitis also have a "no-negotiate" rule, and they have stuck to it. Nevertheless, this did not stop the recent hijacking and hostage-taking. Once again, logic was the victim of passion. This is the way it is in the Middle East -- or so the clich,e goes.
But you could make the argument that this is the way it is here as well. With the efficacy of the no-negotiate rule in doubt, we stick to it anyway like some sort of handhold, proclaiming it to be logical when it just might be nothing more than emotional -- macho at that. Is a rule whose efficacy is in doubt worth the lives of 30 Americans? Is it worth the life of one American? Can you be all that sure that by adhering to it you will never again be blackmailed by terrorists?
Nevertheless, the rule gets repeated like a catechism -- as if repetition itself will make it true. That would be absurd under normal circumstances, but it becomes doubly absurd when the terrorists demand of the Israelis only what the Israelis earlier said they were going to do anyway -- release their Shiite prisoners. The Israelis now say they will do nothing of the sort -- solely because that's what's being demanded of them. And for the same reason, we will not ask Israel to release the prisoners, even though the State Department once said they were being held illegally.
Maybe this is machismo as practiced by nations; maybe it is just plain folly. Either way, it certainly prolongs the agony of the hostages and may in fact endanger their lives. The only justification for a policy that does either ought to be lack of choice -- the inability to do anything about the situation. But that's hardly the case when the solution is self-evident yet -- because of some clich,e -- unacceptable.
It's bad enough when terrorists take Americans hostage. But it's even worse when by doing so they also take hostage the country's freedom of action. Clich,es muddle the mind. In the end, the only one that counts is the one that says the lives of the hostages come first.