BY AFTERNOON on the second day, the pilot of the hijacked Egyptian airliner was reporting that a seventh passenger had been shot. No less ominously, no bargaining points had been conveyed. The hijackers were simply demanding fuel to fly off in an already badly damaged aircraft, although both of their chosen destinations, Libya and Tunisia, had already closed their skies.
The Maltese, meanwhile, had let Egypt slip commandos into the Valletta airport. At 8:30 p.m., taking the route through the hold that the pilot had managed to signal, the commandos stormed the cabin. Grenades thrown by the hijackers set off an inferno and some 60 people were killed, including four of the five hijackers. Some 44 passengers and crew, including some who had been let go before the shootout, survived.
The Egyptians are taking a lot of heat for going in shooting. The first requirement, however, is to put the responsibility where it belongs: on the hijackers. They initiated the violent cycle by commandeering the plane. They carried the cycle along by successive shootings of hostages and displays of irrationality. They brought it to its terrible climax.
It isn't clear what it was in this episode that, evidently early on, turned it onto a track of confrontation. The Egyptians set the incident in the context of their continuing war of nerves with Col. Qaddafi's Libya. In any event, it is naive to imagine that all terrorist operations can be diverted into the protracted de-escalating talkathon that the textbooks commend and that all countries, including the United States, pursue in fact if not always in name. It seems unthinkable that men who were duly reported to have tried to kill seven passengers (starting apparently with the two Israelis, proceeding to the three Americans) could be allowed to take the rest of the passengers off on a further adventure.
Armed assaults on terrorists holding hostages must always be the last resort. They pose great risks to the innocents. Here the innocents already faced great risks. Other innocents on future flights would also face great risks if the notion became accepted that "to save lives" it is necessary to yield to terrorists. Deterrence and prevention remain the safer and superior way to combat terrorism. Endgames are intrinsically and irreducibly dangerous.
The innocent lives lost on Malta are a tragedy. But one can hope that in the long struggle to enforce law on the lawless, these deaths may turn out to have a purpose. It is highly important in terrorist assaults to save the lives of the hostages. But it is imperative that the terrorists' strategies be foiled.