An American in Europe encounters no language barrier this week. Whatever the native tongue, the headlines need no translation. The news about the "otages" is all grim and its meaning all too clear.
"Attente Anxieuse," is the way one journal describes the latest drama of terror that rivets the world's attention again on bloody Beirut. Other French papers sold along the wide boulevards of this Mediterranean port tell us that "L'Amerique Pessimiste" and that "Washington's Attend a une Longue Crise." The Spanish ones highlight "Los Pilotos Secuestrados."
They all deal with various aspects of "De Kapers" -- the mindless, faceless terrorists who have again proved that, if nothing else, this form of madness succeeds in getting the world's attention. And this madness demonstrates again how powerless civilized societies seem to be in dealing with what The London Sunday Times aptly calls "the archetypal crime of our time."
That paper defines this all-too-familiar crime by saying:
"It takes a random set of people, most of whose contact with political causes or armed struggle has been no closer than their television screens, and projects them into an anarchic hell where there are suddenly no limits to pain and humiliation and no rules to ensure they will survive. Their fate depends on screaming fanatics whose motives and language they barely understand, and on the actions of distant governments over which they have no control. They may be the subject of a daring rescue, triumphantly successful or fatally flawed. They may be treated as hostages, peremptorily dumped, or shot to speed up the supply of sandwiches. They may be blown up in their seats because the country whose name is on their passports is held, for some reason, in low regard. There is nothing they can do except keep their heads down, and pray."
This latest atrocity against innocent human beings exactly fits that description.
There is, of course, a difference from the earlier hostage crisis in Iran that had such powerful impact on American life during the Carter presidency and from the terrorist attack in Beirut that took the lives of our Marines. In those cases, the people who suffered did so because of their official connection with the U.S. government. They were doing their duty, as assigned by their government, when they were seized or murdered. In this latest hostage crisis the victims were, as the paper accurately says, nearly a "random set of people," in which Americans became the target.
Now all Americans traveling abroad, for whatever purpose, are potential targets and victims.
That fact has sent a ripple of apprehension and alarm through the ranks of American tourists flocking to Europe in record numbers. More than a million Americans are expected to visit Spain this year, for instance. In places such as London and Paris, the best hotels are completely booked. If you travel from one capital to another, you'll more than likely find every airplane seat occupied, with standbys waiting for "no shows."
At first, the hijacking of TWA flight 847 did not seem to generate much concern. A personal case in point:
By coincidence, my TWA fight from New York's Kennedy Airport to Madrid, beginning a brief week's holiday in Spain, took place on the day of the hijacking in Athens. I have never seen a waiting lounge as crowded with passengers as that at Kennedy on that Friday night. Every massive 747 flight leaving for Europe was sold out. The crowds waiting to board were so thick that every seat in the lounge was filled. Virtually every inch of space was occupied by standing people. It resembled a scene out of a passenger terminal in World War II.
Although the hijacking was then several hours old and the news duly reported, hardly any comments about it were overheard. Hijacking was, it seemed, a distant threat; and these were vacationers, eager for long-planned moments of escape and pleasure. They were heading for fun.
But escape was not possible this week as the hijacking drama unfolded. In hotel lobbies and in restaurants, Americans could be heard talking among themselves about the hostages. Here in Spain, when they turned on hotel room TV sets for news, the telecasts had a surrealistic cast. Against the dramatic staccato sound of a Spanish announcer's voice, the cameras shifted to scenes in Washington: President Reagan. The White House. The Pentagon. They all passed briefly in silent and ominous review. An air of crisis, unmistakable, was building. This sense of uneasiness worsened with other news in midweek.
"Did you hear?" one American asked another waiting for a tour bus to leave the hotel. "There's just been an explosion at the airport in Frankfurt."
Then came news of the car bombing in Tripoli -- followed by reports of the slaying of U.S. Marines in San Salvador.
The circle of terror seemed to be closing. It was no longer such fun to be in Europe. All of us, in some awful way, began to understand the hopeless feeling hostages must experience.
These emotions are natural and understandable. What makes them more powerful is the seeming inability of civilized societies to find ways to ensure the security of commercial airline passengers crossing international borders. Merely denouncing the hijackers, no matter how strong the rhetoric, obviously does no good. Stronger action is needed -- and, so far, lacking.
The ease with which the hijackers penetrated Athens' airport security and the subsequent actions of the Greek government in freeing one of the terrorists' accomplices suggest at least two possible steps.
When such a sitation of gross laxity and irresponsibility exists, a quarantine should be declared by all countries and all airlines participating in international air travel agreements. Governments that countenance or harbor hijackers or otherwise fail to take adequate security measures should be isolated from the world community. They must be made to pay a heavy price -- and pay where it really hurts them by cutting their lines of trade, commerce and tourism.
Second, no government can give in to hijacker demands. To do so only guarantees another hijacking -- and even more unacceptable demands.
As I write this, I am about to pack for the return home, via TWA from the Mediterranean. I think, again, The London Sunday Times speaks for those of us traveling abroad when it denounces those nations that turn a blind eye -- or worse -- to terrorists. As it says:
"Only when such behavior brings total diplomatic ostracism will the sky-pirates be defeated. Of course, there will never be complete insurance against the airborne suicide-bomber. But civilized governments must give no quarter and do no deals. Those foolish enough to do what the Greek government did . . . and thus give encouragement deserve to be regarded as no better than hijackers themselves."