How can we keep the world's terrorists from violating us all?

DURING the week that all American eyes focused on the latest bulletins about the hostages from TWA Flight 847, the Japanese found no space for the melodrama on their front pages or television screens. They too were preoccupied with terrorism, but of a native variety. A young man named Kazuo Nagano was suspected of defrauding thousands of his countrymen of as much as $800 million through worthless gold certificates. While the criminal investigation moved toward an indictment, some 30 reporters and photographers stood watch outside the Osaka apartment of Mr. Nagano, waiting for the next development. They got more of a story than they dreamed of.

Two men appeared on the scene, announcing that they had been asked by six swindle victims to kill Mr. Nagano. Drawing army bayonets from a bag and kicking in a window, the vigilantes proceeded with the execution as promised while the news people jostled for a better camera angle. After a struggle of several minutes, accompanied by screams, the assassins emerged. One faced the cameras and announced, ``I killed him,'' thus rounding out the story neatly for the evening news.

Meanwhile, in West Germany, two Australian children were killed by a bomb planted in the Frankfurt airport.

In Nepal, five bombs exploded in the royal palace, two government buildings, and a luxury hotel in Katmandu.

The same week, six Americans were killed in a caf'e by Salvadorean terrorists -- a story that would have held the headlines any other week. Under the circumstances, the space mission didn't stand a chance as editors scrambled to find room for the trial of the terrorists accused of attempting to assassinate the Pope, not to mention the autopsy on the reputed remains of the concentration camp terrorist, Josef Mengele.

An entire newspaper, a whole news program could be filled with nothing but accounts of terrorism -- and they practically have been. The grief of no relative of a victim has gone uninvaded.

For further sidebars, the media have assumed the familiar posture of self-scrutiny. What should be the ethics of the reporter-witness? Are there responsibilities beyond those to a public craving information?

We have all become victims of terrorism -- and somehow players in the game.

The international press in Beirut clamored for its story so violently that a press conference with hostages became an act of terror in itself. Photographers staked out around the TWA jet have been shot at by gunmen aboard the plane, thus becoming participants in the story they were documenting. The favorite self-image of reporters -- a very objective fly on the wall -- seemed less and less accurate.

In his classic study, ``Terrorism,'' Walter Laqueur wrote, ``The success of a terrorist operation depends almost entirely on the amount of publicity it receives.'' By this criterion, the terrorists -- whether their demands are met or not -- are succeeding.

In Beirut, and all over the world, terrorism has not just grabbed our attention, it has become our obsession. The prestige of the mightiest nations on earth seems to stand or fall by their response to these tiny bands of conspirators, no larger than a good-size gang of bank robbers.

What do terrorists really want? Why can't we do anything about them? Should we retaliate or not retaliate -- and against whom? We saturate ourselves with these questions, as we run daily polls on our feelings and take crash courses in the credo of the Shiite -- a subject we could not have cared less about a couple of weeks ago.

Terrorism has become the shot heard around the world.

The ``star wars'' debate, SALT II, the budget deficit, toxic waste -- everything else goes on hold, including the plight of those anonymous human beings all over the world who are killed by terrorists in a remote mountain village or on a lonely dirt road, year in, year out, far away from the microphones and cameras.

This is how the terrorists have won. They have become the darkness in our heart. And until we get beyond crisis politics, and crisis journalism, it is we who hold ourselves hostage.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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