Paris. - A character in one of John le Carre's spy novels says of Americans in the clandestine world: "Want results. There can't be any, though, can there? We all know that. The more fanatics you kill, the more there are of them."
Thomas Sutherland and Terry Waite are the latest out from the dungeons of Beirut, where the fanatics reign. One of those fanatics said to Mr. Waite on Monday, while unchaining him, "We apologize for having captured you; we recognize now that this was a wrong thing to do, that holding hostages achieves no useful constructive purpose." Possibly Mr. Waite, as a Christian, was able to find it in his heart to accept that apology.
The Islamic Jihad group, which held Terry Waite and Thomas Sutherland, had a specific purpose in mind in kidnapping them, as well as a general interest in making things unpleasant for the United States and Britain -- Great and Lesser Satans, sponsors of Israel and of the late Shah of Shahs in Iran.
The kidnappers' group wished to obtain the liberation of 17 of their members imprisoned in Kuwait, after setting explosions there in the cause of Islamic liberation. In the course of the endlessly complex dealing already going on five years ago over civilian hostages in Beirut, the Israeli airmen in Palestinian or Lebanese hands and the Lebanese and Palestinians in Israeli prisons and camps, something happened to make the Islamic Jihad leaders think that Kuwait releases were possible.
They certainly thought they could buy an eased regime for their prisoners. Robert Fisk of London's The Independent newspaper wrote that he was recruited to carry personal letters from some of the prisoners to their families in Lebanon. But the deal, if there was one, fell through.
This was taking place to the background of the Irangate travesty, and we know that Terry Waite, innocently or otherwise, had become involved with Lt. Col. Oliver North. So the kidnappers did have, as they explained to Mr. Waite, a "useful constructive purpose" in mind, from their point of view.
But then the United States had a useful constructive purpose in mind in bombing Libya in 1986, in retaliation for a Berlin cabaret bombing by Libyan agents that took American lives. That air attack was also a response to Col. Muammar Khadafy's lavish funding of anti-Western terrorism in general.
The American purpose was thought achieved when the colonel afterward seemed quieted, or more prudent. But now the United States and Britain say that Libyans were behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988. High Libyan officials may have been involved, one of them Colonel Khadafy's brother-in-law, if we accept the implications of a concurrent French investigation into the destruction of a French airliner over the Sahara a few months later.
France has issued international arrest warrants for those Libyan officials. The Pan Am bombing, according to credible reports, was retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Libya, and for the U.S. Navy's shooting down of an Iranian airliner in the closing months of the Iran-Iraq war.
And so it goes. "An eye for an eye," as the code of Hammurabi insisted, 4,000 years ago -- the rule for Middle Eastern struggle ever since. Israel respects the rule scrupulously, although whether this has been a success may be argued. Many now would recommend that the United States pluck out an eye or two in the Middle East as retaliation for the Pan Am bombing.
It may be true that taking an eye for an eye is inevitable conduct in these matters, since no one sees a useful alternative, and press and public demand action. However, the record is not one that shines with successes. Bystanders die while the principals (consider Saddam Hussein) stay snug and safe. The foot soldiers of terror believe their way leads literally to paradise, or paradisiacal revenge; or they simply enjoy it, as some people do. They are not in any case to be deterred.
Revenge is the way of that world, as Thomas Sutherland and Terry Waite give evidence. The United States has taken revenge in the past and will do so again. The important thing to remember, though, is that it doesn't get results. You do it; but it doesn't do you any lasting good. That's what Terry Waite's jailer was telling him. Once you think that revenge does get results, you have entered into the fanatics' world; and then it is they who have had the final revenge on you.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.