When U.S. Hostages Are in Peril, Willpower Counts as Much as Firepower, Says Crisis Expert Gary Sick

UPDATED 07/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

The violent hijacking of TWA Flight 847 once again placed American civilians at the mercy of terrorist captors. The outrage provoked feelings of rage and frustration in the U.S. and a natural desire among Americans to strike back. But how, and at whom? Gary Sick, 50, was a National Security Council adviser to President Carter during the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis, which he describes in his book All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter With Iran (Random House, $19.95). Currently he is responsible for programs relating to U.S. foreign policy at the Ford Foundation in Manhattan. Sick discussed the Reagan Administration's options in its hostage crisis with PEOPLE Assistant Editor David W. Grogan.

Is there any kind of military retaliation the U.S. can take?

If your intelligence is good and you can identify a specific retaliatory target, there are all sorts of possibilities. You can send a Delta Force commando raid in to attack a particular site or kidnap individuals involved in the terrorism. But the problem with a small terrorist group is that they move frequently. Finding the house in the suburbs of Beirut where they happen to be meeting currently is a tough job, especially if they don't meet in the same house every time.

Some experts suggest the U.S. should bomb Shi'ite terrorist training camps in the Syrian-held Bekaa Valley. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

If you can really identify a training camp and launch a bombing raid, okay. I am not arguing against hitting terrorists. But say you blow up a school and a hospital at the same time. You'll be remembered for killing a lot of innocent civilians, not for destroying the place where they've been training guerrillas. Terrorists are very shrewd about locating themselves close to civilian targets.

In the weeks prior to the TWA hijacking Secretary of State George Shultz suggested that we should hold Iran responsible for the acts of Shi'ite terrorists in Lebanon. Do you agree?

Even though Iran may have acted as a sort of ideological inspiration, there is no direct evidence that it planned the hijacking of TWA 847, trained the people who carried it out or provided money. But if you casually go out and bomb the holy city of Qum or the oil-loading facilities on Kharg Island, one likely outcome is that the Iranians will turn to the Soviet Union for air defense support. You are also tempting Iran to launch a whole new series of retaliatory raids of its own—for example, striking oil-loading facilities in Saudi Arabia. You could end up with a full-scale oil war in the Persian Gulf.

The problem is, none of these options look very good once you think through the consequences. What would we accomplish besides venting our spleen and just demonstrating the fact that we are really angry? It's like slamming your fist into a wall. It appeals to you until you break a knuckle.

But we are, after all, the strongest nation in the world. Why should we have to put up with this kind of humiliation?

Being big and strong is not in itself a protection against what are really minor irritants. A big, strong man could lose a night's sleep because a mosquito is buzzing around his head. In a sense, it's the same kind of problem dealing with terrorists. These are people who can't organize a military force and go after us. They wouldn't stand a chance. Whatever actions they take are not going to destroy the United States. It may make our lives difficult for a while and a number of innocent people may get killed along the way. But it takes a certain maturity to realize that as long as there are unhappy people willing to risk their lives for some political cause, there is always the danger of terrorism. You can take precautions. You can make sure the security around airports is tight, so that 99 out of 100 get stopped. But that won't mean that every now and then one won't slip through the net and cause you a tremendous amount of anguish.

Are you arguing that the United States should sit still and do nothing?

No. But overreacting is worse than under reacting. It should be remembered that frustration is precisely what a terrorist wants to create. He wants to make you angry, so you strike out mindlessly. That serves his purpose by distracting you from all sorts of other things that might be constructive and useful. So one option that is available to the Reagan Administration is to try to downplay the crisis. Say, "It's foolish of us to go chasing our tail in circles about this. We care about our people, but for the moment there isn't much we can do." There are already seven American hostages in Lebanon, the majority of whom have been held for up to a year now, and there has been no major public outcry. If we add another 40, where is the breaking point? When does the Reagan Administration have to take some action that it didn't take before?

One thing I do know. If we had argued during the Carter Administration that there was nothing we could do about the Iranian hostage crisis and we were going to go about business as usual, Carter would have been impeached. That was the mood of the American public. Are we going to be as emotional about this hostage crisis as we were about the last one? I don't know. In the end, the real issue is not whether we are willing to stand tall to terrorism. It is whether we are willing to accept the world as a complicated place where solutions sometimes do not come easy.

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