Burning Question

Was the attack on Libya a victory over terrorism? Or did American bombs spilling from F-111 fighter-bombers over Tripoli blow open a Pandora’s box of terrorism that will make Europe, and perhaps America, yearn for quieter times? The answers may come slowly, but they will come.

The West would shed no tears over the fall of Moammar Kadafi, nor would Arab governments that live even closer to the psychotic tyrant. But will the shadowy hit-men of Middle Eastern terrorism, not always given to following the rules even of their own governments, shed blood over an attack on him?

That is the chance that President Reagan took Monday. He said on television that the attack was ordered because of evidence that a Berlin discotheque was bombed on April 5 “under direct orders” from Libya. He also said that he had no illusions that the attack would put an end to terrorism, only a hope that it would be a step toward a safer world.

He and Secretary George P. Shultz made their case as simply as it could be made. Doing nothing was no deterrent to Kadafi, and doing nothing seemed worse than doing something.

If the President was right, Europe can go back to the “painstaking police work” that the U.S. State Department’s anti-terrorist chief, Robert B. Oakley, said recently had proved could “pay off, even if it provides no instant answers.”

Recent history provides no assurance that it will be that easy. It says instead that vengeance breeds vengeance. Terrorism stems from the kinds of dark roots that lead to random shootings on European streets to force governments to release other terrorists from jail.

Meantime, the decision has been made, the act is done. There is nothing for us, or any Americans, to do but hope that the cycle of terror can be broken with a single, complicated sortie of high-tech aircraft. History, unfortunately, provides no assurance that those hopes will be fulfilled.