Anger is indeed valor's whetstone, and the valor of the Americans, from the president to the pilots, is clear. But so is this: the interception of the terrorists underscores the limits of U.S. anti-terrorism policy, and the aftermath of the episode has enhanced the PLO.
The United States finally acted against terrorists because it had a highly unusual and unlikely-to-be-repeated opportunity for nonviolent action. It was an act compatible with the administration's "Miranda Rule" approach -- fastidious about procedure -- to anti-terrorism.
In the aftermath, three nations -- one a member of NATO, another counted an ally, the third considered an example of "civilized communism" -- showed that they value good relations with the PLO more than with the United States. Or perhaps the point should be put this way: the three nations' fear of PLO anger is palpable, their fear of U.S. anger is negligible.
A Third World ethicist, identified by The New York Times as a "senior Egyptian official," explained to The Times: "A lie here is simply not the same as a lie in your country." He got that right. The president of Egypt lied repeatedly, extravagantly, transparently as he collaborated with the masterminds of the terror, trying to spirit to safety the killers of an American. Four days later this was a Washington Post headline: "U.S. Seeks to Soothe Egypt."
Who seeks to soothe whom? In the Third World, pride often is inversely proportional to the justification of it. The U.S. ambassador in Cairo says Egyptians are proud people. One yearns for the year when their overflowing pride will manifest itself in refusal to pocket billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers.
Italy's government violated an extradition treaty with the United States and almost certainly facilitated the stealthy flight of a particularly odious terrorist to Eastern Europe. The Reagan administration called this Italian action "inexplicable," a polite description of an act completely comprehensible as appeasement of terrorists.
Then Yugoslavia, from which noth expected, violated an extradition treaty with the United States and compounded the offense with an offensive explanation, saying the terrorist has diplomatic immunity. The PLO, a terrorist organization, has an "embassy" in Zagreb.
There is a similarity between the context of the terrorist interception and the context of the Grenada operation. Grenada came shortly after a stunning military defeat -- the truck bomb against the Marines that did so much to drive U.S. forces from Lebanon. Considered in the context of the debacle in Lebanon, Grenada suggested that the United States is temperamentally preped to use military power only in its region and only when the use can be completed quickly, before Sam Donaldson (meaning television) arrives.
The interception of the terrorists came a week after, and in the context of, U.S. acquiescence in the U.N. condemnation of Israel for attacking the PLO's headquarters in Tunisia. Israel's sin was that it practiced what the United States preaches: "No sanctuary for terrorists."
Considered in the context of the U.S. refusal to veto the U.N. condemnation of Israel, the U.S. interception of the terrorists emphasizes the administration's highly restrictive criteria for anti-terrorism. It will censure actions taken even against obvious sources of terrorism, such as PLO headquarters in Tunisia. It will act only against particular terrorists specifically identified with isolated deeds, and only when it can act without jeopardizing bystanders. The administration says "if an opportunity presents itself we will do exactly the same thing again." "Exactly"? Exactly: no more.
The message of the interception was supposed to be "you can run but you can't hide." But terrorists routinely do both. They use civilians, first as fodder and then to hide behind. Low-level terrorists with blood on their hands have little to fear, and their leaders have nothernment that brings to anti-terrorism a self-defeating desire to assign direct, individual culpability for particular acts of violence sponsored by organizations. This is a policy of striking only at the fingers rather than the brain of terrorism. We are bringing to the war against terrorism the same war-losing restraint that, 15 years ago, had U.S. fighter planes chasing individual trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, while North Vietnam's dikes were spared.
Soon the U.S. government will utter the usual lubricating pleasantries, and Egypt's president and other fellow-travelers of terrorism will grudgingly, and for a profit, forgive us for the injuries they have done to us. The United States has won a battle but has lost the aftermath.