WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Twenty years ago this week, four Islamic terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro and murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound, American passenger. As U.S. Special Operations teams pursued them through the Mediterranean, the killers sought to make good their escape. Abetted by the government of Hosni Mubarak, the terrorists were finally apprehended when U.S. Navy jets forced their Egyptian-provided aircraft to land in Sicily. Though Italian officials helped spirit the terrorist ring-leader, Abu Abbas, out of the country before he could face charges, the other three were prosecuted and convicted. In Washington, Reagan administration officials involved in the daring operation applauded the capture as a victory in the war on terror. Our celebration was premature.
In the aftermath of the Achille Lauro incident, newspaper headlines quoted President Reagan saying, "We bagged the bums," and "You can run but you can't hide." True enough for the three terrorists who were jailed for hijacking and murder -- but widely off the mark if viewed in the broader context of fanatical Islamic terrorism that was even then a very dangerous and growing movement. In a moment of absolute candor after the event, a senior CIA officer commented, "We only caught them because they wanted to live." And then, reflecting on the deaths of 241 Marines in Beirut two years earlier he added, "If these three had wanted to die, the outcome would have been a whole lot different."
That's where we are today. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Madrid, London, Bali and literally thousands of "suicide-homicides" from Tel Aviv to Chechnya to Tal Afar, Iraq -- it is apparent that there are plenty of volunteers willing to become "martyrs" in the process of killing infidels. Those who suggest that pulling our military out of Iraq will remove the incentive for radicals to join the jihad are sadly mistaken. So too are those who believe that the problem will go away if we eliminate "kingpins" like Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al Zarqawi -- "evil men, obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience," as President Bush described them this week in a forceful presentation before the National Endowment for Democracy.
As Mr. Bush explained, "no concession, bribe, or act of appeasement would change or limit [the terrorists'] plans for murder. On the contrary: They target nations whose behavior they believe they can change through violence."
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.