Without a doubt the late Bert Lahr's most memorable performance was that of the Cowardly Lion in the movie "The Wizard of Oz." No one could forget Lahr, his tail wagging and his paws up in the air, proving his courage by saying "Put 'em up." When it comes to sheer posturing, it was the definitive performance. Then came Ronald Reagan on the subject of terrorism.
For more than four years now -- indeed for most of his political career -- Reagan has been saying one version or another of "Put 'em up."
Unlike Lahr in the Wizard of Oz, Reagan is no coward. His poise when he was shot and everything we know about him suggests that the man has more than the requisite amount of physical courage. What he may not have is the requisite amount of intellectual courage -- the guts to say with absolute clarity that there are times when no one can do anything about terrorism -- not stop it, not contain it and not retaliate against it.
This acknowledgment of reality is important because the Hezbollah wing of the Republican Party is yelling for revenge. It has called for the resignation of Secretary of State George Shultz, whom it wrongly suspects of being reasonable. It is joined in its call for revenge by various conservative and neoconservative intellectuals. Norman Podhoretz, for instance, didn't even bother with Shultz in his newspaper column but went straight for the president. Recalling Reagan's own words, Podhoretz contrasted them with what has, so far, been a lack of action. America, he concludes, has been humiliated.
The danger is that the president will respond to these taunts. For years now, Podhoretz has been obsessed with what he calls the American "loss of nerve" -- that is, the nerve to send someone else to die. Podhoretz and others have that nerve in abundance; they either had it or they have it retrospectively in Vietnam, and they have it in spades now all over the world -- Nicaragua and Lebanon to name just two. Like airheads at Muscle Beach, their concern always is for a display of strength. If essays were wars, we would be brawling all over the world.
So far the president has kept his cool. His remarks at his press conference immediately following the hijacking were measured, moderate. He spoke as a man who has learned something on the job -- a man who had put the governor of experience on the throttle of emotion. But this, as his bellicose Chicago statements evidence, is no easy thing for him, and the tendency will be to redeem the old rhetoric. After all, down deep we all believe that turning the other cheek is for kids in Sunday school. What we want is revenge.
Fine. If the guilty can be found and isolated, then they should be punished. An American has been murdered, and that is something no one should forget. But justice, not some alleged national humiliation, should be our only concern. As a nation we neither have been humiliated nor do we feel that way. In fact, there is every reason to believe that the American people are way ahead of the president on this issue. They know that sometimes, unfortunately, you can do nothing but take your lumps.
The president must realize this now. True courage is not to take a swipe at anyone, regardless of complicity in the hijacking, but to acknowledge reality -- the complexities of the situation, the probability of punishing the innocent with no harm to the guilty and the chances of getting deeper into a quagmire of terrorism in which First World technology is no match for Third World fanaticism.
Before we strike, we ought to consider who we are hitting and why. If the president responds because he is trapped by his old rhetoric and taunted by his critics -- because the issue becomes their peculiar idea of "humiliation" -- then he will not be showing guts, but merely a willingness to do what others expect. That's not courage but just more posturing. Anyone can say "Put 'em up." Not anyone, though, can have the courage of his own conviction.