A newspaper prints a panel of cartoons in which President Reagan is shown standing at a lectern, making a speech about "Moslem terrorism." The cartoon is supposed to be about the president's inaction in dealing with such terrorism, but what it's really about is Arab bashing.
It is another example of how some people have used the TWA hijacking to declare open season on all Arabs. A cartoonist thinks it's permissible to talk of "Moslem terrorism" when he would never use the term "Christian terrorism" to describe events in El Salvador or Chile or even the bombings, killings and other outrages of the Irish Republican Army.
Similarly, others have not hesitated to recommend some sort of retaliation for the TWA hijacking in which the innocent would suffer along with -- or even more than -- the guilty. It seems not to matter which is the case. All that seems to matter is that Arabs get punished for the crimes of other Arabs. It is as if all Arabs are guilty of the acts of a few -- a conspiracy of several hundred million people, depending on whether you think all Moslems or just Arabs ought to suffer.
Even the Reagan administration has joined the bandwagon of Arab bashing. It has, for instance, asked the civilized world to join it in staying away from the Beirut airport and has turned that sorry strip into a symbol of terrorism and lawlessness. It seems that no one in the administration remembers that TWA flight 847 took off from Athens, landed once in Algiers and was, on its second trip to Beirut, refused permission to land: "I am unable to give you landing instructions due to the closure of the airport, sir," said the tower to the plane on June 14. "Advise the hijackers that. I think they understand English." A bit later in the same conversation, the tower flatly told the plane that it did not have permission to land. "It's up to you and the hijackers to go on."
The hijackers insisted otherwise. "Beirut," said the plane to the tower, "the hijacker has pulled the pin on his hand grenade. He will land at Beirut. He is desperate."
Of course, it is true that Beirut itself is a mess of warring factions and that the area around the airport is controlled by Amal and not what's left of the central government. But if TWA 847 had been coming into John F. Kennedy in New York and the hijackers had threatened to blow up the plane with a hand grenade, it would have been given permission to land. In fact, for all that is being said now, that plane could have landed at Andrews Air Force base, next to Air Force One, if the terrorists had so insisted.
It's probably true that the administration had to do something after the hijacking and maybe, given the bomb- 'em-kill-'em suggestions pulsing from the typewriters of 100 literate Rambos, a boycott of the airport was the most reasonable act suggested. But it is also true that the airport itself had almost nothing to do with the hijacking and that boycotting it and Middle East Airlines amounts to punishing the innocent just because they happen to be in the same neighborhood as the guilty. When it comes to satisfying the demand for a lynching, it sometimes doesn't matter who gets hanged.
But it matters to the hanged -- and to their relatives. Arabs are already troubled by an atmosphere in America where it seems reasonable to propose punishing people whose only "guilt" is their religion or their language. They wonder with some apprehension about a political atmosphere in which the value of human life seems to be diminished by color of skin, the manner of worship or the language spoken. It is as if Arab life is not the equal of non-Arab life -- as if the constant killing of the innocent in the Middle East, Lebanon in particular, gives us the right to do the same.
The Middle East is perplexing and frustrating. But things become no clearer when a region or a people gets labeled as bad or evil -- dehumanized by rhetoric so that their deaths are not supposed to matter. That says nothing about them. It does, though, say a lot about us.