When Jimmy Dell Palmer, one of the TWA hostages, was freed by his captors for medical reasons, he told the press in Cyprus that he was "a typical American citizen who knows very little about the problems in Beirut." Palmer may or may not be typical, but probably only Americans think that ignorance of foreign affairs, like an unaccountable taste for snails, is a charming national characteristic.
Palmer, of course, now knows better. Because of events he little understood, his plane was hijacked and another American, a Navy man, murdered almost immediately. For days his own life hung in the balance, and his friends and relatives back in Little Rock did the customary things. They worried, they prayed, and they tied a yellow ribbon 'round an old tree.
The tragedy, the one to compound the one of the hijacking, is that given our nature we will soon lose ourselves in the carefree demands of summer and forget all about Beirut and -- as the song goes -- those far away places with strange sounding names. We will revert, as we have before, to ways of thinking that were formed when the world seemed bigger, events moved a lot slower and America was buffered by two huge oceans. The oceans are still there, of course, but it only takes a missile about 15 minutes to span them.
In many parts of the world, what we here call politics and, accordingly, dismiss with contempt is treated with utmost seriousness. People abroad know that politics very often has to do with who lives and who dies -- and, among the living, who gets to live well. The United States, blessed with the wonderful monotony of economic and social stability, has relegated politics to a kind of spectator sport. It can be exciting but for most people it is thought to have almost nothing to do with what is sometimes called "real life."
If that is the case with politics, it is even more the case with foreign affairs. As a young journalist working for United Press International, I was told that foreign stories were of minimal interest on the East Coast -- and no interest at all almost anywhere else in the country. You can understand that. Everything seems so far away -- Europe, Asia. The vastness of America -- the mountains, the plains -- seems to mock any concerns with what's happening in another country.
But the hostages were not limited to any coast. They came from all over the country, and their seizure is yet additional evidence that ignorance of foreign affairs is not bliss -- it is just ignorance. It hardly matters to the hijacker that you neither understand his religion nor his grievances, but it cripples our ability to do something about it. There is a touch of arrogance in the persistence of both American politicians and the media to refer to the hijackers as religious exotics when, for instance, our own president states with all confidence that Marines killed in the Beirut bombing are in heaven. With equal confidence, that happens to be where their killer thought he was going.
Similarly, there's a touch of ethnocentric arrogance in not recognizing that the Shiite fundamentalists have their counterparts in this country. Here, too, there are those who denounce the secular state, call for abolishing the public schools, yearn for so- called traditional values, would make religion a prerequisite for true citizenship, reject the fruits of the intellect (Darwin and his insights on our origins; Freud and his insights on our behavior) and would, within the cultural context of the West, limit the rights of women. For Americans to think that this sort of thing is limited to the Shiites of Iran and Lebanon, or the Sunnis of the Sudan and Pakistan, is not only blind ethnocentrism but also dangerous. Their passions are not inexplicable; they are downright down home.
Jimmy Dell Palmer said that when he was in captivity his captors tried to educate him. They tried to tell him why they had hijacked the airplane and taken 40 Americans hostage and how, in their view, their actions were sanctified by God. Palmer admitted understanding little of what he was told, saying only that Lebanon was a complicated place. With that, he flew on home -- a good man, a typical American. He was a victim twice over -- of circumstances but also of our own ignorance.