Fighting Words

Terrorists Ain’t What They Used To Be

Reflections on the London bomb plot.

Fernando Gabeira (r) and Lula

SAO PAOLO, Brazil A panel at a beautiful annual literary festival in Brazil, held in the almost Utopian coastal town of Parati, found me matched with Fernando Gabeira. This comparison reduced my own limited charisma value to something like zero: Gabeira has excelled at every cultural activity in Brazil from journalism and book writing to bikini modeling (is there, I wonder, a Brazilian wax for men?) to politics. A founder of the Green Party of Brazil and a leading parliamentarian, he delivered a barn-burning speech earlier this year against the exorbitant corruption of the ruling Workers’ Party and, implicitly, of its celebrated head, President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. After a lifetime of politics and adventure, Gabeira is counted by numberless Brazilians as a great charmer and wit, as well as an all-round good egg and upright citizen.

Still, the fact remains that in 1969 he was one of the organizers of the kidnapping of the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Charles Burke Elbrick. This means that I can’t have him to stay with me in Washington, because he can’t get a visa. He spoke movingly about the way in which he keeps in touch with the United States, of which he is very fond these days, at second hand. Well, those are the breaks, I suppose. There are one or two lines that you can’t cross and then expect a visa in return. Brazil, of course, was a hideous military dictatorship at the time of the kidnapping, and the kidnapping hoped to secure the release of many prisoners held in unspeakable dungeons (and did so). There has since been an amnesty in Brazil that covers both sides but applies mainly to one. Still, a terrorist is a terrorist, no?

This brings to four the number of former hijackers and kidnappers with whom I have been on friendly terms. Herminio da Palma Inácio, the Portuguese revolutionary, was perhaps the first hijacker in Europe. He borrowed a Portuguese plane from Morocco during the Salazar dictatorship, made it fly over Lisbon and drop leaflets calling for a free election, took it back to Morocco, presented all the ladies onboard with a rose, apologized for the inconvenience, and deftly disappeared. He was later a national hero for his role in the overthrow of fascism. In the 1960s, Bill Brent became convinced (I think with good reason) that if the Oakland Police Department didn’t kill him, some of his former Black Panther associates would. He rashly decided to redirect a TWA flight from Oakland, Calif., to Cuba, where he still lives and from where he has published a very readable and sobering memoir called Long Time Gone. Bassam Abu Sharif, who during his days in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine helped bring hijacking to the Middle East, was later partially deafened and partly crippled by an Israeli parcel bomb and went on to become one of the most fluent and courageous advocates of a “mutual recognition” between the two peoples.

Conversation with these men over the years was enough to convince me of what I already knew: It is indeed possible for one man to have been both a terrorist and a freedom fighter, though it is probably better to have skipped the “terror” phase altogether. The Iraqi Kurds, for example, never tried to involve noncombatants in their war of liberation. Nonetheless, evolution can and does occur.

This is only one of the many ways in which to appreciate how much the current phase of Islamic “terrorism” is utterly different. Whether or not the London plot turns out to have been real, one knows for sure that similar plots have been afoot ever since the 1990s, when Ramzi Yusef and others conspired to bring down several jumbo jets over the Pacific. And one day fairly soon, we may be sure that human and mechanical debris will fall from the sky upon a city. If you look at the four men I cited above, you will find that they did not plan to inflict murder at random, that they had at least a reasonable belief that they were left with no other recourse, that they had some concept of tomorrow being better than today, and that they accepted—and still accept—responsibility for their actions. What could be more different from those who plan to inflict mass death at random, whose agenda is tyrannical and theocratic, and who are so arrogantly exalted by fanaticism that they wish only to be among the dead? This isn’t at all about bad methods being used for “justifiable” reasons or causes. It’s about being able to tell a great deal about the “end” from the sort of “means” that are employed to attain it.


Last week, when I wrote “The Eighteenth Brumaire of the Castro Dynasty,” I swear with hand on heart that I had not read Jon Lee Anderson’s “Letter From Cuba” in the July 24 New Yorker. Anderson has lunch with Ricardo Alarcón, the president of Cuba’s National Assembly and a supposedly coming man whom every reporter tries to check in with. (I have met him myself—he has miles to go before he achieves mediocrity.) Musing on the idea that the revolution might be over, Alarcón says:

A half century in France passed from the time of the monarchy of Louis XVI, the great revolution, the guillotine, all the counter-revolution that ensued, Bonapartism, the bourgeois republic of the thirties. All the twists and turns that France underwent took place in the same period of time that we have managed to keep the Cuban revolution in power. Not even Robespierre could say that; Napoleon couldn’t say that. Hey, we’ve done a lot!

Karl Marx—and, later, Marxists—used to ponder and debate the French Revolution to discover how to avoid its crimes and mistakes, especially the blunder represented by Bonapartism. Evidently repeating some drivel he has heard during one of Fidel’s all-night monologues, Alarcón appears to think that these crimes and blunders should be studied only in order to repeat them.