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."
So as the protests grow louder on the home front, Americans will continue be targets for radical Islamic extremists. The best hope we have of protecting innocent civilians is to continue to improve protection here at home, take violent action against the perpetrators where they gather and train, and ameliorate the conditions that make it conducive for those inciting the jihad to recruit more volunteers. It is a strategy that has been working and which the president expanded upon this week.
The regular drumbeat of news from Iraq and Afghanistan -- albeit most of it negative -- should make it clear that violent action is being taken against "Jihadis" where they gather in significant numbers. And, despite criticism, there can be no doubt that we have improved homeland defenses. Since Sept. 11, as the president explained, the U.S. has prevented "at least ten serious al Qaeda terrorist plots" -- including three planned for inside the United States.
What isn't apparent, because it just isn't "news," are the measures being taken to remove the incentives for young Muslims to become suicidal "foot soldiers" in the jihad. This week, the president went even further, calling on "all responsible Islamic leaders to join in denouncing an ideology that exploits Islam for political ends."
Beyond responsible dialogue, the best antidote to the imams, sheiks, ayatollahs and mullahs who incite terror are purple fingers. That's why violence in Iraq is increasing as the Oct. 15th Constitutional referendum approaches. Millions of people lining up to vote are a threat to the power of the Jihadis -- and they know it. So too are many other developments in Iraq that the masters of the media miss as they file reports on "the war" from the balconies of their air-conditioned hotel rooms in Baghdad's green zone.
Over the summer, 43 Iraqi schools were renovated, making it possible for another 18,000 Iraqi children to get a quality education instead of a deadly indoctrination. Since June of 2004, 656 schools have been rebuilt or renovated.
Hundreds of thousands more Iraqis have clean water today than ever before thanks to new water treatment plants being brought on-line. In the villages surrounding Kirkuk, for example, 25,000 residents have running water for the first time in their lives.
In August, the new Iraqi Highway Patrol headquarters opened its doors in Baghdad, and six new highway patrol stations are under construction. Major Andy Johnson of the 18th Military Police Brigade calls this "a major step toward consolidating Iraqi control over the security of the main highways and commercial arteries in Iraq."
Throughout Iraq there are more children going to school, more people with electricity, clean water and sanitation than ever before. There are more newspapers, radio stations, televisions, fire stations and health care facilities in Iraq today than at any point in the history of Mesopotamia. Yet we never hear about these things from our mainstream media.
Major General S.T. Johnson, who commanded the forward element of the 2nd Marine Division in Iraq puts it this way:
"As a result of everyone's perseverance and personal risk, children here are going to school; water and electricity are widely available in the provinces of Karbala and Najaf which, almost one year ago, were dysfunctional. Forward operating bases in Najaf continue to be turned over to Iraqi Security Forces. Last but not least, thanks to our Military Training Teams and joint coalition and Iraqi patrols, Iraqi Security Forces and everyday people are taking charge and securing their national interests."
In December, the Iraqi people will elect their first government under their new constitution. All of these measures point to trouble for the Jihadis, intent on despoiling freedom. Those who are fighting this war -- on both sides -- know this.
Though protests and pessimism command the attention of the media here at home, there is hope in Iraq. That's a big improvement over twenty years ago when we had to regard the capture of a handful of hijackers as a major victory in the war on terror.
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.