The El Al flight from Nairobi to Tel Aviv leaves at 4:20 a.m. On the nights of the flight, units of the Kenyan army guard the airport. Inside the terminal, soldiers are everywhere. They wear black berets and carry automatic weapons, but passenger security is left to Israelis. On the night I took this particular flight, there were about six Israeli security agents and maybe a company of Kenyan soldier present. We passengers were vastly outnumbered. There were only six of us.
That night in Kenya comes back to me because now the United States may have to follow the example of Israel to ensure the safety of its own citizens and those of any country who choose to fly U.S. airlines. It may have to insist, as the Israelis do, that you arrive at the airport two hours before departure and that security agents go slowly and methodically through your luggage, questioning you as they go along. In Kenya, there seemed to be one agent for each passenger. One of them looked up from my luggage and said, "You know why we do this?"
"Yes," I said. "And take your time."
There are many ways to measure the success of a policy and all of them can be disputed. When it comes to terrorism, though, one gauge has to be the airline you choose to fly. Given a choice, I would pick El Al -- and not for its cuisine. It's because I know that every one of my fellow passengers has been searched down to the toenails. And I know, too, that the job has been done by security agents who have been trained for the job -- not rent-a-cops who were guarding a warehouse the week before.
And I know something else as well. I know that some of my fellow travelers are armed security agents. Since I know that, I presume terrorists know it, too, and will choose another airline if they have the itch to do something violent. And finally, I know that El Al is the airline of a nation that will -- no doubt about it -- retaliate for a terrorist attack. I feel comforted by that. Maybe it's a comfort that has no basis in logic, but it does have a basis in experience. It has been 18 years since there has been a successful terrorist operation against El Al.
It is for all these reasons that the passenger in me -- the guy who goes abroad -- approves of the U.S. bombing raid on Libya. I know, as do most other Americans, that it will not instantly put an end to terrorism -- in fact, it may inflame it. Terrorism, after all, is a manifestation of a larger political problem -- the instability of the Middle East and the agony of the Palestinians.
But it's hard to see how the death of an American GI in a Berlin disco eases the plight of a Palestinian anywhere in their diaspora. It's even harder to justify the murder of TWA passengers over Greece. The fruits of terrorism are not political accommodation, but hatred and a stiffening of resolve. Certainly, that has been the case with Israel and Lebanon and Northern Ireland. In short order, vendettas replace political goals.
Bloodshed moots policy questions. Does it matter any more that the Gulf of Sidra operation was a provocation -- and everyone knew it? Does it matter that Muammar Qaddafi has been bolstered, that the president had led us step by step to the point where it no longer was material to ask how we got here -- just what to do now that we are here. From the first use of state-sponsored terrorism against Americans, the genesis of the fight no longer mattered. What counted then was the government's obligation to ensure the safety of its citizens. The Israelis have proved you deal with force in several ways. One of them is to respond with force. There is an awful logic to it.
Now, though, we are in for an ugly fight. More lives will be lost. The Europeans who know terrorism firsthand were reluctant to join the United States not because they lack courage but because they have a realistic assessment of the difficulties involved. The fight against terrorism cannot be conducted by fighter planes from the air; it must be conducted by dreary, routine work on the ground. It will mean arriving at the airport two hours before departure, having your baggage methodically searched, having to answer seemingly silly questions posed by a perfect stranger -- and sometimes having to go through the procedure twice. All this will take time and money. This particular passenger offers the government no objections: Take what you need of both.