I sit before my word processor on the morning after the interception of the Achille Lauro terrorists, suffused in satisfaction and, I will confess, just the tiniest little hint of pure vindictiveness. I really want those guys to pay. The affair was cinematic from beginning to end: a preposterous criminal scheme only a screenwriter could have thought up, bullies for villains who pick on a helpless invalid, a dramatic and successful sky chase to bring it all to an end, just when it seemed as if evil would prevail. And, for once, the U.S. government appeared to have done the thing right -- competently, proportionately, and with the enormous advantage of having been on the right side. No ambiguity there.
But, of course, there will be. That is the part that clouds my satisfaction, makes me feel ever so slightly queasy about exulting in the immediate outcome, introduces -- in short -- an element of impending doom. I don't mean the danger that there will be bloody terrorist reprisal for what we've done. There may be, but passivity in the face of these assaults is by no stretch of logic a means of preventing them. Nor is my unease based on any expectation that the facts will turn out to be different, although that is always a possibility. On the contrary, my apprehension rests on my suspicion that whatever the facts, within the shortest imaginable time, the episode will have generated an acrimonious argument here at home about what will be regarded, from various points of view, as a humiliating and/or scandalous American misstep. So much for the rare emotions of this morning. They don't have a chance.
Maybe it won't happen this time. But if it does you know exactly what it will be like. The noises will come from the usual two quarters: the vocal right and the voluble left. From the latter you will begin hearing the words "macho" and "Rambo." There will be talk of Grenada and, among doddering old-timers, of the Mayaguez incident. It will be said that, as with them, the current operation was no big deal for a superpower with our resources to have accomplished and certainly not something it is seemly for us to "gloat" about.
In fact, the "gloating" is likely to become its own disagreeable subtopic. Does it not show, we will be asked, a vengeful spirit on the part of our government and, alas, of our populace as well? This will help convert the interception (which will finally be seen as an act of violence and aggression) into further evidence of our hopelessly warlike nature. This view will be augmented by complaints about our failure to work through the United Nations, and, at its extreme edge, theories will eventually be produced to show that actually the whole thing was either known about in advance and not sopped by agents of our side or, in all probability, didn't happen at all.
From the other side, you will in time hear other complaints and other words -- not "Rambo" and "macho" but "Carter" and "wimp." The paltriness of the accomplishment will be bewailed. As on the left, it will be thundered that the "gloating" is inappropriate, but not because it reveals our belligerence -- rather because there isn't enough to gloat about. The interception will be viewed as, literally, the least we could do and far too well- mannered; the whole episode will be viewed as a lost opportunity to have blown away our terrorist tormentors at their source, wherever that is.
It is almost certain that as such complaints are heard, the names of Secretary of State George Shultz and presidential national-security adviser Robert McFarlane will be heard, too. These men will be accused of having led a successful resistance to the brilliant and eminently practical plans of others (in some recesses of the White House and at Defense) to take much larger, more conclusive military measures. Their resistance will be attributed to a profoundly misplaced concern for the sensibilities and opinions of various other nations that have the ill grace to inhabit the earth with us. Of the president himself it will be said that once again, poor right-thinking fellow, he has been deceived and derailed by these conspirators, Shultz and McFarlane.
To the extent that left and right will agree on anything by the time this all gets going, it will be the common proposition that the action taken "failed to address the real source of the problem." Not that they will agree on what that source is; one side will see it as the "legitimate grievances" of the terrorists, the other as their continued existence. There will also be special issues raised from special quarters. Some who admire the operation but don't admire Reagan will go to great lengths to prove he had nothing to do with it. Others will dwell at moralistic length on all the contradictory statements, confusions and subterfuges that accompanied it. And surely we can expect the Pentagon to point out soon that under the budget cuts now being contemplated it could not have managed a successful operation, just as we can expect Pentagon critics to tell us that despite the appearance of success the whole thing was beset by foul-ups and only worked out because of an amazing chain of lucky breaks.
Why do I think these things will happen? Because they always happen, and although the circumstances change from episode to episode the reactions never do. Why do I think that people react this way? Not, let me stress, because I think they have it in for America and American success or because they are crazy (at least not all of them). I think it is simply our invincible self-indulgent custom, after the first flush of any national success, to go back and re-create the thing in a way that justifies prior positions and biases and does a little business on the side for whatever our political interest is.
I had better restate a couple of hedges here. It is possible that different facts concerning the American action will emerge; anyone who has been around Washington for the past two fun-filled decades will want to stipulate that. And even if the story stays the same, this time the predictable reaction may not materialize. But I wouldn't bet on that. I think people who are experiencing a certain pleasure in the perception that at least approximate justice has been done, never mind what horrors may yet await us at the hands of terrorism, had better enjoy the feeling while they can.