THE people who killed Lt. Col. William Higgins and threatened to kill other hostages in Lebanon are guilty of heinous acts and should be punished. Murder and terrorism cannot be condoned under any circumstances. It must be responded to. But the difference between responding and reacting must be kept clearly in mind. And the roots of hostage-taking and of the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Lebanon and of the denial of political rights to millions in the Middle East need to be kept in focus as a proper response is sought. To do less is to fall into the same diplomatic and moral trap that Israel did when it abducted Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid.
Israel is very good at that sort of thing: Its armed forces (especially its commandos) are the envy of military officers around the world. And in this world, sad to say, there are times when swift and forceful action may be called for. But what purpose did this latest action by Israel serve, aside from eye-for-an-eye retaliation? The wrong-headedness of that move was only compounded by the offer to negotiate with hostage-takers.
It makes no difference whether the marine officer in fact was still alive this week. The question remains: What good did it do to grab Sheik Obeid, the Shiite cleric, even if he was tied to the Higgins kidnapping? What was gained?
A cynic would say it was to draw the United States back closer to Israel at a time when Washington is tentatively fashioning a more even-handed Mideast policy that includes talking to Palestinian leaders and telling Israel straight out to ``give up the dream of a greater Israel.'' The reaction has only been a violent attempt by radical Arabs and Iranians to drive a wedge between the US and Israel. Was that an anticipated diversion (anticipated by Israel, that is) from US diplomatic efforts?
Israel's security is important to the US, not only for strategic reasons but because the idea of Israel is right. But there's something even more important now, and that's finding a way out of the trouble that has plagued the Middle East for decades. A secure Israel is not possible with continuous war, of which terrorism is part.
The prime responsibility, of course, falls to the nations in the region. For the US, it means continued pressure on Israel to reach a political settlement with Palestinians, continued pressure on Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders to seek political resolution to the Palestinian uprising in the context of Israeli security, and alertness to signs of moderation by new Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. This is the only way to get at the roots of Mideast terror.