Dan Thomasson - On Algeria's response to hostage situation

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Accounts by survivors of last month's hostage crisis at a huge natural gas facility in Algeria increasingly make that government's forceful response to the terrorist threat seem more appropriate.

The desert drama began early on Jan. 16, when terrorists seized control of the facility and its several hundred workers. It ended five days later when Algerian military forces stormed the facility. At least 37 foreign hostages and 29 terrorists were killed, igniting controversy. Some questioned whether there might have been fewer fatalities if the situation had been handled differently.

But hostage survivors subsequently have said the militants had a goal of horrendous mayhem, of trying to "orchestrate a spectacular fireball that could have killed everyone in the facility," The New York Times reported recently.

Had the Algerian government made drawn-out efforts to reach accommodation, it most likely would have been rejected, leading to unimaginable levels of death and destruction. And it would have sent an encouraging message to others with similar designs.

The attackers were thwarted, initially, by a guard who sent a signal to shut down the plant before he was killed. The terrorists lacked the expertise to start the gas flowing again, and any hostages who knew how somehow managed to stall long enough for troops to begin their push to recapture the plant.

From the beginning, it has been far too easy to criticize the Algerian response. But doing so disregards the fact that the Algerians have faced these threats before -- and have refused to take anything but a hard-line approach. As the details begin to shake out, their reaction seems more defensible.

How long does it take to understand that dealing with religiously motivated zealots is not only difficult, it requires swift and conclusive action even when it risks innocent lives? The Israelis understand that negotiating to satisfy terrorist goals is unacceptable, because it makes them vulnerable to more of the same.

Had President Jimmy Carter understood this in 1979, when Iranian thugs entered the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 Americans hostage, the current situation in the Middle East might have been avoided.

What might have been the outcome if, within moments after their capture, the White House -- preferably the president himself -- had sent a message to Teheran that authorities there had only a few hours to put the hostages on a plane to the United States or face destruction of their own city or nation? Is that harsh? Of course, but sometimes a willingness to sacrifice our own for the greater good is necessary, especially in a world plagued by those who have no compunction about giving up their own lives for some violent cause.

The Algerians did not ask permission from allied nations nor any other outside authority before moving ahead. Their policy was never in doubt. In light of what the militants intended, who can argue that it was wrong?

In a perfect world, those outside the rule of law would be open to some reasoning when confronted by far superior forces. But too often, these are unreasonable adversaries looking for martyrdom and the benefit of paradise. Giving in to any demand, including ransom, is like swallowing poison.

Tragically, some hostages in the desert lost their lives. But imagine what the carnage otherwise might have been. Those who work in difficult places -- including government employees assigned to high-risk posts -- must understand the potential cost. This is particularly true when wars are fought without rules of engagement, lines of demarcation or enemies in identifiable uniforms.

(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)

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