Active resistance

THE ordeal of the 40 Trans World Airlines hostages was unsettling enough. But next have come the tragic plunging of Air India Flight 182 into the Atlantic -- possibly, officials suggest, after the midair explosion of a device planted by militant Sikhs -- and an airport explosion at Narita Airport near Tokyo. Acts of terrorism seem to be making a run at the patience and confidence of a world that would prefer to get safely on with its business.

There can be no passive resistance to wrongdoing, whether of the hijacking variety for political purposes against governments, or any other violent acts that put the lives of innocent citizens at risk. There can be no waiting for the epidemic to run its course. Neither can there be any fatalism about such events, no assumption that they are an inevitable consequence of oppressed minorities' grievances that must be lived with. Both passivity and fatalism can only give terrorism more to feed on, opening the door to justification for terrorism.

Already, many proposals for reducing the potential for hijackings to occur have been advanced. Standards for screening passengers and cargo for weapons or explosive devices can be set for all international airports. These can be enforced by forbidding the landing of aircraft from countries that decline to honor the standards.

A worldwide convention on terrorism could be called, as proposed by columnist Flora Lewis of the New York Times. An agency such as Interpol could be empowered to publish a list of people involved with terrorism, and signatories to the convention would be required to arrest individuals on the list if they appeared within their jurisdiction. The idea would be to create an international consensus that terrorism is a crime, actionable under international law. International conventions on slavery and the treatment of prisoners of war offer precedents. Western European nations would presumably be the best qualified to initiate such a convention, not the United States or the United Nations, which are embroiled in political disputes. The idea has merit. It provides an alternative to acts of retaliation, which feed the eye-for-eye emotionalism that triggers further terrorism. It would affirm that even in a world of profound political antagonism, as in war, there are standards of conduct that are worth observance by all parties.

In the specific TWA case, Washington is right to continue exploring all avenues to negotiate the American hostages' freedom. Israel's release of 31 Shiite and other Lebanese prisoners tested the waters for a gradualist approach to the crisis. The hijackers refused to match the release with any movement on their side. At least the gesture shows Israel is sensitive to what could become heavy pressure, from American public opinion if not from the White House, to release the entire 766 Shiite and other Lebanese prisoners Israel has been holding in contravention of the Geneva accords. Failure to move quickly enough, awkwardly attempting to maintain both Israeli independence of action and tight security coordination with the United States, may allow the hostage situation to slip into Beirut's prevailing chaos. The hijackers' demands could escalate. Yesterday's insistence by the hijackers that Washington recall the armada it has been sending into the eastern Mediterranean is not the kind of demand to which Washington can accede.

Hijackings are crimes. It is wrong to elevate them to acts of political significance. It is a test of the strong to be patient and persistent enough to negotiate a safe conclusion with the criminals, while reducing through airport security and other steps their further occurrence.

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