For years I've kept a book by a friend close at hand for use on a special occasion: my long-planned and long-delayed lengthy trip to Greece. The book is a splendid historical guide to the wonders of Greece, past and present. Some day, I've vowed, I'll visit that one place I wish to see more than any other.
Not that I haven't been able to travel extensively. Over the years, I've been fortunate to have the sort of job that dictated travel, even if the stories that compelled the trips were often tragic episodes of war or earthquake or rebellion: from the plains of Punjab across the Himalayas to the Vale of Kashmir, following the spine of South Africa down close to the Antarctic and in the northland journeying all the way up to Point Barrow. And, along the way, in the nature of journalistic assignment, I've visited many of the countries and capitals of Asia and Europe. That leaves Greece.
I mention all this extraneous personal background because on reflection I'm shocked at my own reaction to the latest senseless-slaughter-of-hostages story, by far the worst yet.
When I first heard news of the disaster on the plane that left Athens bound for Cairo, I immediately thought: Thank God I hadn't booked that trip to Greece. And: You can scratch Athens from my list. The Acropolis can wait. Since I've seen the Pyramids, and have no passion to experience Egypt again, there's no way I'd willingly want to visit it or any other Middle East target of terrorism, either.
I'll bet many others have had similar reactions. Like me, their instinctive response to such appalling news is to want to avoid the places of such disaster. Stay away from them. Seek the security of your own safe nest at home, wherever that may be. Crawl back into your shell. Withdraw. Isolate yourself as much as possible from distant trouble. Put it out of sight and out of mind.
Of course, that's exactly what the terrorists seek to accomplish. The minute you begin thinking or acting that way, they've won. By withdrawing, by letting their actions control or change yours, they have come close to making unacceptable conditions seem -- well, not acceptable, but unavoidable. In so doing they have altered reality in terrible ways. They have created a new and unacceptable norm. They have left this interdependent world of ours in a state of helpless, hopeless impotence. It becomes their world. They dictate the terms for movement in it.
Put it another way: Suppose -- and this may well be the case -- American teachers, American Foreign Service officers, American priests and ministers and rabbis, all of them special targets of Mideast terrorists, become reluctant to accept postings to that region? Again, the terrorists will have won. Not only the Middle East, but the world, will be a poorer place for it.
This latest in the seemingly endless cycle of terrorist violence and brutal murder of innocent human beings, with infants and the aged infirm alike being wantonly executed in cold blood, compels other thoughts.
First, my immediate reaction about avoiding Athens is wrong. It might have been appropriate last spring, but not now. Then, during the TWA "skyjacking" incident, notoriously lax airport security in Athens was blamed, perhaps rightly, for permitting that incident to occur. The same cannot be said today. Athens, by all accounts, including those of surviving passengers themselves, has instituted extensive screening procedures of passengers personally and of their luggage, both checked and carry-on. Whether the guns were smuggled aboard in Cairo remains an unanswered question.
In that sense, Athens appears to be as safe as any airport, anywhere.
The more important question, obviously, is what can be done about these situations.
This latest outrage against humanity teaches again an old lesson seemingly yet unlearned: that no nation, no matter how powerful, can control the lawless acts of international terrorism by itself. Terrorism can only be contained through international cooperation and international action.
And terrorism can be controlled if the major nations of the world agree on certain ironclad principles and courses of action:
*That security everywhere be tightened and that any place found lacking be placed off limits to commercial traffic.
*That no safe havens be permitted to terrorists and that any nation found to be granting such be placed under international quarantine and totally isolated from civilized commerce and transit.
*That any such nation judged to be in that last category become subject to swift retaliation so that no terrorist, anywhere, nor any nation shielding the same, is permitted to escape punishment. If Libya, for instance, is truly the font of terrorism, then in the biblical sense let Libya reap what it has sown. Let it experience the whirlwind.
These same principles apply to controlling the weapons of terror, especially nuclear ones. That we have failed so far in banishing the terror of the age, the Bomb, in no way means we can stop seeking to do so any more than we can avoid trying to eliminate the scourge of our times, terrorism. It is, after all, in our own self-interest. There really is no other alternative. Even though we might wish it to, the shrinking world that exists will not go away. There is no way we can escape from it.
So, as for me, I'm still determined to take that trip to Greece. Besides, look at it this way: Despite all the horrors of all the centuries, the Acropolis, that monument to the best in human aspirations, still stands. I'll be be damned if I'm going to be deprived of that sight.