It passed as one of those clarifying acts of foreign- policy-through-semantics when President Carter declared that "terrorists," not the government of Ayatollah Khomeini, held power over the hostages in the Tehran embassy. The President, clearly, was trying to rally public support by indicating the political irresponsibility of those he was forced to deal with. But apart from discrediting the group formerly designated as "students," what new perception does the use of the word terrorist add to the predicament?
Terrorist promises to be a catch-all word of the '80s. One of the most common prophecies being made for the decade predicts that there will be more Louis Mountbattens, more Tehrans -- more "terrorism." It is a term that bears care in its usage, not only because it provides so tempting a way to disparage an enemy but because it is one of those words (like "Fire!" in a crowded theater) that automatically creates panic and thus clears the path for extreme acts of one's own.
If we are determined to make this word popular, we should learn more about what it means. In his invaluable book, "Terrorism," Walter Laqueur is compelled to spend an inordinate amount of space explaining what it is not. Depending on their vantage points, previous users of the word have made it synonymous with "criminal," "moral imbecile," and "mentally deranged" -- as well as "idealist," "martyr," even "saint."
Historians tend to think of terrorism as a desperately confused response to social injustice. Left-wing historians are likely to assume that terrorists are fascists; right-wing historians are likely to assume that terrorists are communists. Psychologists, on the other hand, tend to think of terrorists as unhappy children trying to kill father.
Laqueur concludes that almost no generalization about terrorists holds up, especially if one permits one's appalled eye to roam from the assassins of ancient India to 19th-century Russian anarchists to the IRA. About the only generalization he allows himself is that there are few old terrorists.
To a considerable extent, the terrorist, like the bogyman is a fairy tale, lives in the eye of his beholder. A terrorist without an audience is inconceivable. More than any other political figure he uses history as a stage. "It is not the magnitude of the terrorist operation that counts but the publicity," Laqueur observes.
In her latest novel, "Cannibals and Missionaries," Marry McCarthy brilliantly illustrates the Laqueur dictum by having hijacked passengers and their captors watch themselves on television. Rather as if they were tuned in to the movie of the week, the hostages applaud government officials appearing before the camera. And yet their lives hang upon the words those officials are speaking.
Miss McCarthy's hostages, incidentally, were on their way to pre-Khomeini Iran -- half of them, wealthy art collectors, intent on seeing the archeological sights, half of them members of a committee invited by Iranian "students" to investigate alleged terrorism on the part of the Shah.
The terrorist is the ultimate challenge to civilization, not only as a physical threat but as a moral menace. Some large demon within him speaks to some tiny demon within ourselves, inviting us to envy his mad purity, his refusal to come to anym terms with his society. Miss McCarthy forces her hostages (and her readers) to examine their comfortable Western-liberal consciences and, in fact, everything they profess to value, from God to democracy to art. But with equal rigor she drives her terrorists -- those propagandists of the deed -- to betray themselves by thought, by reflection. She is as thoroughly disciplining as an 18th-century novelist.
With Miss McCarthy's standards in mind, back to the real Iran. Are the young militants holding hostages in Tehran really terrorists? One can draw the simplest dividing line by saying terrorists kill, or are perfectly willing to kill, with no respect for the innocence of the slaughtered, including children. Laqueur suggests that the shared assumption of most 20th-century terrorists reads: Humanity itself is a bourgeois prejudice.
The hostage-takers in Tehran have not yet qualified for this description. Until then we should be scrupulous about calling them, or anybody else, a terrorist. It is, rhetorically speaking, a bomb-throwing word.