One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, as Jonas Savimbi, leader of the UNITA rebels in Angola, has shown us once again.
On March 5, Dr. Savimbi, as his admirers like to call him, snatched up about 200 foreign nationals, including 16 women and five children, from the government town of Andrade, site of a diamond mine, and started marching them through the jungle to his headquarters about 800 miles away.
It seemed clear that the rights of these people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness had been seriously interfered with, and that they were, in fact, hostages.
But nobody paid the slightest attention to what, if done by, say, the Nicaraguans, would have had the White House screaming its head off.
Washington was preoccupied with another set of "freedom fighters," the contras of Nicaragua, who have set Ronald Reagan into a rhetorical spin which will end only when Congress votes on whether to approve another $100 million in military aid.
Reagan has no doubt in his mind that the folks who run Nicaragua are terrorists. He knows they engage in drug-dealing, conspiracy, and according to a lighted map he displayed in his Sunday address, they are spreading their tentacles all through Central and South America. Only Peru seems to have escaped. The contras remind him of the men of Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Vietnam, El Salvador and occupied France.
He was never asked about the hostage-taking in Angola by his protege Savimbi. Television did not touch the story. There were no pictures of the poor captives toiling in the jungles, because nobody could find them. News reports were scanty. When he was first asked about it, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said he hadn't heard about it.
The State Department had heard, however, and issued a stiff statement from the office of Chester A. Crocker, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs: "The taking of hostages in war is explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians. We cannot condone the practice by any party."
The right wing took a different tack. The leaders of the fight to give Savimbi overt, covert and any aid in between to dislodge the Marxist government of Luanda sprang to his defense, before the captives were set free, unharmed, in Zaire.
Their argument: He has done it before. He said he was going to do it when he was here in Washington being lionized by the Reaganites. Rep. Bill McCollum Jr. (R-Fla.) said flatly, "It's not terrorism because he didn't harm anyone in any way."
There were no Americans involved.
Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), said that he hadn't heard a report of either the capture or the release, but would have been very "disappointed" if it turned out that Savimbi had abused anyone. Pepper is still trying to "get him the money and materiel he needs to fight a Marxist government."
From Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), another Savimbi fan: "Savimbi didn't kidnap anyone. He was trying to remove innocent civilians from a war zone. It wasn't terrorism; it was relocation." The State Department lodged a protest with UNITA. So did the British government in behalf of its four captives. They prevailed, with no show of moral indignation on the part of a president who regards terrorism as the world's greatest evil.
Savimbi is clearly not housebroken. Neither are the contras. American visitors, church people, official watch groups, have brought back accounts of murder and mutilation. But Reagan's only acknowledgement of their brutality came in the bizarre story of counterfeit contras -- Sandinistas committing atrocities in stolen contra uniforms.
The president's address was meant to frighten America. What was frightening about it was its incoherence and its squalor -- all the stale tales of Soviet conspiracy, Sandinista plots to devour its neighbors, choke off western commerce, destroy God and swamp us in drugs. He recruited Clare Booth Luce, John F. Kennedy, Scoop Jackson, and Lane Kirkland for second opinions on his diagnosis, which is that Nicaragua is a cancer. In a quiet, realistic response, Sen. James R. Sasser (D-Tenn.) made only one glancing reference to the parallel that counts: Vietnam. "As the father of a 17-year-old son, I say, Mr. President, let's not rush blindly into that quagmire. We've done that before."
Nicaragua is a miserable choice between an impossible government and an unsavory opposition. So is Angola. In the fight against communism, there is no terrorism, no hostage-taking. In this era of excess, words have acquired a different meaning.