Why did they do it? As usual in the Middle East, the stated reason is not the important one, particularly in this case, where the hijackers or those who sent them must have known perfectly well that the Israelis were already planning to release the Shi’ite and other Lebanese captives, and that a public challenge of this kind could only delay, rather than accelerate, their release. The immediate cause was undoubtedly the exchange negotiated not long previously by the Damascus Palestinian leaders, which had secured the release of some 1,100 Palestinians held in Israel. The Palestinians had not negotiated for the release of the Shi’ites, who were not their concern and who were at that moment their enemies.
This left the Shi’ite leaders in a somewhat invidious position. Some of them clearly felt they had to show publicly that they could do as well for their own people as the Palestinians in Damascus had done for theirs. Obtaining their release in this dramatic way, even if it meant a delay, would have the further advantage of ensuring that they returned home as rescued heroes rather than as discharged prisoners, and would owe a debt of gratitude—to be swiftly collected—to those who had secured their liberation. In the ferocious but small-scale warfare of Lebanon, the accession of a few hundred seasoned and determined fighters could make a significant difference.
But more important than either of these was the need felt by the radicals among the Shi’ites to strike a blow against the pragmatists. In recent years, two clearly defined groups have appeared among the Shi’a in Lebanon. One, the larger group, has a Lebanese program. Basically, their aim is to preserve and indeed restore the traditional Lebanese system, but with the Shi’a in place of the Maronites as the top community. For this they would need the approval of Syria. They would also need those other advantages that the Maronites had enjoyed in the past—their own autonomous region, a powerful position in the central government, good relations with the West, and at least a standoff with Israel.
These objectives, and in general the notion of an open, multi-confessional society, are anathema to the radicals. Anti-Western, anti-Israeli, and anti-secular, they have no use at all for such accommodations, and see themselves rather as the Western branch of the great revolutionary movement which has its center in Tehran, and which aims at creating a Shi’ite revolutionary bloc from central Asia to the Mediterranean, as a first step toward their larger universal aims.
From what we know, the taking of hostages showed a striking resemblance to the initial stages of the seizure of the American embassy personnel in Tehran. There too, as in present-day Lebanon, some Shi’ite leaders were edging toward a better relationship with the United States. There too the radicals saw it as their most urgent task to end any possibility of such a reconciliation. In both cases more practical elements tried to take over the management of the crisis, and limit the damage. In Iran they failed utterly; in Lebanon, for the moment at least, they appear to have succeeded, though it is still not clear which pragmatists have done this, and in what circumstances, with what interventions, of what kind, from Syria or Iran.
Why the United States? Clearly, because America is the unchallengeable leader of the West, and the foreign power most actively involved in the Middle East, and is thus the biggest and best target. It would have done the hijackers very little good to seize a plane and passengers of any other nationality—indeed they had seized several in the preceding weeks, without much impact. To challenge America, to humiliate Americans, brings glory and prestige; the others are little fish, to be thrown back into the water.
There was also another reason why America was the best target. After the experience in Tehran, those who plotted the hijacking knew that they could count on the American press and television to provide them with unlimited publicity and perhaps even some form of advocacy, and beyond that, to create a situation in which the immediate victims and their families become the arbiters of American foreign policy.
In these circumstances, the administration faced two tasks: first, to extricate the hostages with minimum damage from their captivity, and second, that being done, to devise and apply policies that will deter governments and other authorities from encouraging, harboring, or even tolerating those who commit such crimes. The one has been accomplished, at what cost is not yet known. The other remains.