Perhaps by the time these words appear the hostage crisis will have come to a bloodless -- or bloody -- end. Perhaps not. But whatever its ultimate outcome, this latest episode of kidnapping and terror has already illustrated once again our permanent disadvantage in dealing with people who do these things and our penchant for deepening the disadvantage by the way we respond. That response is a (by now) ritualized series of diversions and evasions that subtly but quickly make us feel better while also making the hostages' situation worse.
The permanent disadvantage is not our fault. It is built in and has three main elements. First, people who urgently want something are always at a great advantage over those who merely want to be left alone -- as those air travelers in particular did and as Americans in general do insofar as the conflict in the Middle East is concerned. Yes, those who wish to be left alone will struggle mightily to defend their country against military or even economic aggression. But these isolated, recurrent assaults aren't seen as that kind of threat.
Second, our permanent disadvantage rests on the unbearable choice we face between trying to save the lives of innocent victims and trying to face down their tormentors without yielding. No one has figured out a way to do this well because there is no way. We try to do both.
Finally, it is in the nature of this kind of terror that its victims -- meaning all who don't practice, understand or condone it -- will at once turn and run from its reality, insisting on seeing it as something different from what it is. Terrorism attacks our compatriots on airplanes and that makes us sad or angry on their behalf. But it also attacks our most fundamental, settled assumptions about how we can expect people to behave in relation to us, what we can count on them to feel and do -- or not do. Those assumptions are central to our sense of personal security. And so this kind of attack frightens and disorients us and we try very hard to describe or rename or wish it away. We give terrorism a familiar face, an understandable motive, an explanation that makes it somehow less menacing. We try to doll it up to look just like the family next door. And meanwhile the terrorists continue to shoot the odd helpless passenger and pitch him out the airplane door.
We call these shoot-and-pitch men "militants," by the way, as if they were merely agitating for pure air and happy whales. And by implication, anyhow, we absolve the bulk of them from their crime by designating a certain few among them as "extremists," the others who did the tying up but not the shooting presumably being something else. This inapt language is part of our evasion, part of the effort to see the assault in less terrifying terms than it deserves.
I am always struck by a couple of particularly bad formulations that are used in these episodes. One holds that the hostages are "being treated well," so long as they get some food and soap and are not being physically beaten. It reminds me of that old standby about how the woman had been raped "but not harmed" by her assilant. The absence of a bash to the face in neither case constitutes absence of harm or good treatment. By the very act of their capture our hostages are being brutally mistreated.
The other especially unfortunate formulation is that which holds that we are in a "war" with terrorism. But war, with its rules and its purposes and its causes, for all its irrationality and evil, is exactly what we are not in. And to say we are is to do several things. It is to elevate these grubby criminal acts to a status they don't deserve; it is to cast, at least indirectly, all Americans as enemy civilians or belligerents and thus fair game; and it is to misdescribe the nature of the assault itself. Soldiers may behave thuggishly, but there is a difference between soldiers and thugs. And there is a difference too between being a prisoner of war and being a hostage hauled off a plane.
All these slightly "off" terms start to get thrown around very early in each hostage episode. Within the first 48 hours we begin to transform the perception of what has happened. We call these ordeals "crises," but we drain the urgency from them. And as it is with our national "problems," we do not try to resolve them so much as we colonize them. Everybody moves in. Outrage over the fact of the kidnapping diminishes. The captivity of the victims becomes simply a given. The hostages almost are forgotten as politicians, press and public around the globe begin to communicate with each other courtesy of TV. The overwhelming purpose of all seems to be to tame the beast, to make it seem something else.
It doesn't take long, you will observe, before we are all basing our conversation on unspoken premises that aren't much good from anyone's point of view -- except that of the terrorists. In November of the first year of the Iranian hostage crisis you could hear people demanding that the captors entertain the prospect of delivering Christmas packages to their captured wards. Christmas arrangements! In November! What a way of saying that we were settling in for a nice long haul. Within a few hours of the TWA affair you could sense a similar resignation dropping down over the crime like a net. The lunatic professoriat took to the air and expressed its usual hostage-crisis baloney; we commentators did much the same; the so-called experts on terrorism scratched their heads; we heard all about the legitimate grievances of the captors; we heard how the hostages were being treated well; we got used to the idea.
Except that what we were getting ourselves used to was a very prettied up construction of the event. We had tamed it, rearranged it, made it safe for us, but not for the passengers of that ill-fated plane. If I were not such a First Amendment junkie I sometimes think I would come out for mandatory silence in those first crucial hours of a hijack. We always say we won't pay ransom or give terms. But we give everything in the brief span of time. We give acceptance, credibility and respectability of a sort. We proceed to accommodate what has happened with too much understanding and too little complaint. It becomes, to the commentator and audience, more "interesting" than it is outrageous. We give it all away at the outset and wonder why it is so painful and costly to get our people back.