The Magazine

Terrorism and Liberalism in the '70s

A decade of spinelessness helped pave the way for the election of Ronald Reagan

Feb 7, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 20 • By DAVID FRUM
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Glass, glass everywhere: That's what travelers saw when they entered Washington's new Dulles International Airport in 1959. Under a concrete roof that curved like the takeoff trajectory of a jet hung four vast windows without a retaining wall in sight. And beyond the glass, there was only the sky -- the sky that America ruled in the way that Britain had once ruled the waves. It was from the air that America had dropped the atomic bombs that ended World War II. It was by air that America had sustained its hold on West Berlin during the darkest moment of the Cold War. It was through the air that the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe subverted the enemy Soviet Union. And it was via air that millions of newly prosperous Americans, their wallets stuffed with their almighty dollars, were inflicting the new industry of mass tourism upon the unhappy residents of Paris and Rome.

You can still see the glass at Dulles. But you can't see much of the sky. The vista overlooking the runways is now chopped off by a long wall, broken at intervals by doorways that lead to metal detectors and x-ray machines. It's incredible now, but within the memory of people now living, air passengers routinely walked from the door of the airport to their seat on the plane without being searched, scanned, or interrogated. And this was not seen as remarkable or miraculous: It was ordinary, normal, the way things were expected to be. Despite (or maybe because of) the international tension of the 1950s and '60s -- despite the Berlin and Cuban Crises -- the Eisenhower and Kennedy years were a time of security for Americans from dangers much below the level of thermonuclear holocaust. Americans had reason to fear war, but they did not have to fear that some bomb-carrying fanatic might blow their airplane to smithereens.

The first task of government is to guarantee the safety of the citizen, and that is a task that after 1970 Western governments performed less and less well. Over the Labor Day weekend of 1970, teams of Arab commandos seeking the release of Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian assassin of Robert Kennedy, performed the spectacular feat of simultaneously hijacking four jumbo jets, two of them the property of American airlines. Two of the hijacked jumbos were flown to Dawson's Field, near Amman, Jordan. Four hundred passengers, 150 or so of them Americans, were held hostage for three weeks until Jordan's King Hussein mobilized his army to force the release of the captives. The empty planes were blown up by the hijackers in a headline-grabbing act of destruction.

The first airline hijacking recorded by history occurred in Peru in 1930, when officers attempting a coup diverted a plane to drop leaflets over Lima. The United States suffered them intermittently in the 1950s, mostly by bank robbers commandeering planes to make good their exits. But so long as planes had relatively short flying ranges -- and so long as there was nowhere within that range for a would-be hijacker to commandeer a plane to -- hijacking's potential was severely limited. Then, on February 21, 1968, Lawrence Wilson Rhodes stepped aboard a Delta Airlines DC-8, pointed a pistol at a stewardess after takeoff, and demanded to be flown to Havana. Over the next two years, his example would inspire an assortment of crooks on the lam, lunatics, black nationalists, and Castroite radicals to commandeer a total of 38 American planes, 37 of them to Cuba. None of these hijackings resulted in death or injury. The Cuban authorities behaved politely enough, feeding the abducted passengers roast beef dinners and selling them the famous local rum and cigars at duty-free prices before sending them home.

These early hijackings were not without their ludicrous aspects -- "Take dees plane to Cooba!" became the punch line of wearisome nightclub comedians -- but their import was not funny at all. The United States was no longer able to protect its citizens from international anarchy. And through the 1970s, international anarchy obtruded itself ever more terrifyingly into American consciousness.

Between 1968 and 1981, terrorists murdered the American ambassadors to Guatemala, Sudan, Cyprus, and Lebanon, the prime minister of Jordan, the prime minister of Spain, the chairman of Germany's second largest bank, the front-runner for the presidency of Italy, the uncle of the Queen of England, the President of Egypt, and, very nearly, the commander of NATO and the pope. Thousands of perfectly ordinary people were killed or maimed by international and domestic terrorism in Argentina, France, Germany, and Uruguay. The Irish Republican Army, an organization largely financed by money raised in the United States, murdered 2,261 English and Irish people between 1969 and 1982, was responsible for 7,500 bombings that claimed the lives of more than 600 people, and deliberately crippled more than one thousand journalists, businessmen, and ordinary fellow-Catholics who failed in the opinion of the IRA to show sufficient enthusiasm for the cause.

No grievance seemed too obscure to provoke terrorism. In May 1977, gunmen demanding independence from Indonesian rule for South Molucca, a territory once known only to the clever 11-year-olds in the National Geographic Society's annual geography bee, seized 105 schoolchildren and their six teachers at a school in the small Dutch town of Bovensmilde. Another South Moluccan band took hostage 50 adults aboard a commuter train. After nearly a three-week standoff, Dutch marines assaulted the train and the school. All the children were saved; two adult hostages and all the terrorists were killed.

No portion of the earth's surface was too idyllic to attack. Black nationalists murdered the governor-general of Bermuda and his military aide as the two men walked the governor's dog after dinner in March 1973. A British diplomat and a French-Canadian cabinet minister were kidnapped in October 1970 by terrorists demanding the independence of Quebec.

No season of goodwill was too sacred to be profaned. A team of Palestinian terrorists attacked the Munich Olympics in September 1972 in an attempt to kidnap the Israeli Olympic team. The incident ended in the violent death of all 11 athletes.

No taboo was so awesome as to go unviolated. One leader of the German Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, drew up plans to bomb the headquarters of what remained of Jewish communal and religious life in West Berlin "in order to get rid of this thing about Jews that we've all had to have since the Nazi time." He was caught before the plans could be carried out.

Terrorism worked, in the sense that it intimidated. In the summer of 1976, two German terrorists and five Arab hijackers seized an Air France jetliner en route to Tel Aviv and flew it to Uganda's Entebbe Airport. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had food and supplies waiting and deployed troops around the perimeter of the airport as soon as the passengers were marched into it. On the ground, the two Germans took command. They released the non-Jews and held the Jews. "Among the hostages at Entebbe," wrote a leading authority on the Baader-Meinhof gang, "there were a few who had been in Hitler's concentration camps. Once again they found themselves being sorted out, Jews from non-Jews, the Jews selected to die. Once again they were ordered about by guards with guns, shouted at to move quickly -- Schnell! -- this time by a German woman hijacker, who also felt it was necessary to slap them. One of the captives went up to Bose [Wilfried Bose, the leader] and showed him a number indelibly branded on his arm. He told him that he had got it in a Nazi concentration camp. He said he had supposed that a new and different generation had grown up in Germany, but with this experience of Bose and his girl comrade, he found it difficult to believe that the Nazi movement had died. Bose replied that this was something quite different from Nazism." Israeli commandos flew 2,000 miles and attacked the airfield in the middle of the night, scattered the Ugandans, killed the terrorists, and saved all but one of the hostages. The world's political leaders did not dare applaud. United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim condemned the Israeli raid on Entebbe as a violation of Ugandan sovereignty. The government of France, the owner of the hijacked plane, offered not a single word of praise or thanks to Israel. The Ford administration managed to summon up only a milky expression of "satisfaction" that the lives of the passengers had been saved.

Supineness in the face of terrorist violence was such a distinctive trait of the 1970s that the phenomenon acquired a useful shorthand name: the Stockholm Syndrome, after an incident that occurred in the summer of 1973. Two ex-cons attempted to rob a bank in the Swedish capital. Police burst in on the robbery and, to protect themselves, the crooks grabbed four hostages and fled into the bank vault. The police besieged the robbers for five days, and finally flushed them out by drilling holes in the vault ceiling and dropping tear gas inside. Then a curious thing happened. One of the hostages emerged to announce that she had fallen in love with and intended to marry the lead crook. The syndrome entered ordinary speech a year later when Patty Hearst, the media heiress, threw in her lot with the political radicals who had kidnapped her. She denounced her family and fiance on tape recordings. "I have changed -- grown. I've become conscious and can never go back to the life we led before. . . . My love . . . has grown into an unselfish love of my comrades here, in prison and on the streets." Hearst even toted a gun alongside her captors in an April 1974 San Francisco bank robbery.

The Stockholm Syndrome seemed to grip the whole world. All too often, it was the targets of terrorism who endured the blame for the gunmen's crimes. The influential French newspaper Le Monde expressed this line of reasoning forcefully in a 1977 commentary on the outrages of the Baader-Meinhof gang: "Only a society that is itself monstrous can produce monsters."

The Carter administration fell victim to the Stockholm Syndrome, too. In a speech given soon after the Iranians took 52 American diplomats in Tehran hostage, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance urged Americans not to get too upset over the incident. "Most Americans now recognize that we alone cannot dictate events. This recognition is not a sign of America's decline. It is a sign of growing American maturity in a complex world." When Vance's boss, President Jimmy Carter, warned a few weeks later that there was a limit to American maturity, the Ayatollah Khomeini mocked him: "He [Carter] sometimes threatens us militarily and at other times economically, but he is aware himself that he is beating on an empty drum. Neither does Carter have the guts for military action, nor would anyone listen to him." (When Carter finally attempted military action, which crashed and burned in the Iranian desert in April 1980, Vance resigned in protest.)

But America was not an empty drum. After a decade of insults, large and small, the Iran hostage-taking snapped the country out of its defeatist funk. Disc jockeys began playing a comic new song to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann": "Bomb, bomb, bomb; bomb, bomb Iran." "What's flat and glows in the dark?" went a popular joke. The punch line: "Iran, 24 hours after Ronald Reagan's inauguration." The Iranians must have heard the joke too. Before the 24 hours had elapsed, all the hostages were released.

The humiliations of the Carter years stiffened America's spine. A constellation of influential ex-Democrats -- Paul Nitze, Irving Kristol, Eugene Rostow, and Norman Podhoretz -- formed a "Committee on the Present Danger," to rally the country for rearmament. In 1975, only 18 percent of Americans said the country was spending "too little" on defense. In 1978, still only 28 percent said the country was spending "too little." But by 1980, an overwhelming 60 percent majority worried the country was spending too little.

Carter never quite managed to understand what the country was bothered about. He scorned Ronald Reagan's demand for firmness and resolve, telling reporters that Reagan's criticisms of his policies reflected Reagan's "apparent inability" to understand the complexities of arms control. "If you've got just a strong military and you are jingoistic in spirit, and just show the macho of the United States," Carter explained to 50 Chicago suburbanites a month before the 1980 election, "that is an excellent way to lead our country toward war. . . . The Oval Office is not a place for simplistic answers. It is not a place for shooting from the hip. It is not a place for snap judgments that might have serious consequences." But if the choices were simplistic answers or Carter's answers, simplicity could look mighty appealing. In September 1980, Leon Jaworski, a former Watergate special prosecutor, signed up as the honorary chairman of "Democrats for Reagan." When reminded by a reporter of his earlier harsh assessment of the Republican nominee -- not five months before Jaworski had described him as "an extremist whose over-the-counter simplistic remedies and shopworn platitudes trouble the open-minded and informed voter" -- Jaworski replied, "I would rather have a competent extremist than an incompetent moderate."

It was the collapse of social order at home and the ebbing of American prestige abroad that shattered Democratic liberalism. As anti-Vietnam protesters battled police outside the 1968 Democratic convention, a pollster asked the American public whether Mayor Daley had done right to unleash his cops to club and arrest unarmed students carrying "We are your children" placards. Sixty-six percent said yes, Mayor Daley was right; only 20 percent said no. The Daley poll asked Americans to take sides between the forces of order and the forces of disorder. By inventing excuses for riots, condoning crime, and cringing before terrorism, Democratic liberals finally convinced the public that only conservatives and Republicans could be trusted to maintain order. "Since 1960," observed a Yale anthropologist who lived for two years of the middle 1970s in Canarsie, a working-class neighborhood adjacent to Kennedy Airport in New York, "the Jews and Italians of Canarsie have embellished and modified the meaning of liberalism, associating it with profligacy, spinelessness, malevolence, masochism, elitism, fantasy, anarchy, idealism, softness, irresponsibility, and sanctimoniousness. The term conservative acquired connotations of pragmatism, character, reciprocity, truthfulness, stoicism, manliness, realism, hardness, vengeance, strictness, and responsibility." In 1980, the Roosevelt Democrats of Canarsie voted overwhelmingly in favor of Ronald Reagan, the Jewish precincts nearly as heavily as the Italian ones.

Americans in 1980 were not returning to the era of laissez faire. Rugged individualism no longer swayed them. But neither did the soft social-democratic ethos of the middle years of this century that had ushered in a bloody decade of terrorism. Americans were moving on to something new: a creed that blended the antique ideal of self-reliance with a new sense of entitlement. It was a fuzzy political idea -- perfect for the fuzzy era to come -- and the struggle to imbue it with meaning would define the politics of the post-Cold War era.