The United States had its first fateful encounter with Islamic terrorism in Lebanon. Hezbollah and its Islamic Jihad affiliate, armed and financed by Iran and Syria, had honed their terrorist skills in the early 1980s against Israelis. Then they began to direct those skills toward Americans.
On April 18, 1983, an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 60 people, including 17 Americans. Six months later, another Islamic Jihad suicide bomber attacked the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut airport, killing 241 American servicemen.
On Jan. 18, 1984, an Islamic Jihad gunman killed Malcolm Kerr, the president of the American University of Beirut. Months later, Islamic Jihad kidnapped William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, whom they tortured and eventually murdered.
More bombings, kidnappings and murders followed. American policymakers talked tough about terrorism, but staggered with an irresolute antiterrorism policy that vacillated from military response to arms-for-hostages.
The Soviet Union had no such problem. Unhinged from any moral base, unaccountable to a free press or an independent judiciary neither of which existed its leaders enacted ruthless policies without any ethical constraint.
Hezbollah briefly targeted Soviet personnel in Lebanon. Their Iranian godfathers had, after all, condemned the godless Communists as severely as the satanic West.
But Russian victimization came to an abrupt end. In his book "Veil," Bob Woodward explained why.
Hezbollah had kidnapped four Soviet diplomats from Beirut during the fall of 1985. One they murdered straightaway. The others they held in captivity.
In response, the KGB seized the relative of a Hezbollah leader. As part of Moscow's anti-terrorism policy, the KGB "castrated him, stuffed his testicles in his mouth, shot him in the head and sent the body back to Hezbollah. The KGB included a message that other members of the Party of God would die in a similar manner if the three Soviets were not released."
Shortly afterward, Hezbollah set free the three remaining Soviet hostages. Soviet interests in Lebanon were never similarly menaced again. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cadre of KGB veterans certainly have a policy template to deal with the abduction and recent vicious murders of four Russian Embassy workers in Baghdad.
By any measure, the barbarity of the war in Iraq surpasses the brutality of Lebanon. In the same week that al-Qaida terrorists tortured and executed two American soldiers, a suicide bomber struck an old age home in Basra as part of a string of attacks on civilians that left scores dead.
For those squeamish about terms like good and evil, consider the differing moral calibrations of al-Qaida and the United States. For al-Qaida, civilian casualties are a sign of success and torture something to celebrate. For the United States, civilian casualties are regrettable errors, torture something to punish.
Such horrors and what looks like a senseless, endless pattern of violence typically generate two kinds of responses. The first is the desire to leave, to remove Americans from harm's way in Iraq and wash our hands of a far-away conflict.
That, of course, would be a victory for the terrorists one of their primary objectives is to drive coalition forces out of Iraq. And it would reinforce the perception among our enemies, earned over decades since Lebanon, of American fecklessness with regard to terrorism.
The second response is that of the KGB: the desire to abandon constraints and respond in kind to the perpetrators of heinous acts.
That, of course, would be a defeat for our civilized society and a violation of the moral principles on which this nation is founded.
There is no simple solution to the Iraqi carnage, no easy answer to the questions raised here in this country in the debate about the conflict. But giving in to either of those impulses has implications that extend far beyond the borders of Iraq and that will last far longer than a campaign season in the United States.