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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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.