Our political leaders are either liars or simpletons who have no memories.
There is no doubt in my mind that I am the world’s least successful terrorist – even though, in truth, I was only a suspected terrorist. So every now and then I wonder who stands out as the most successful terrorist(s) of my lifetime. There are two nominations I cannot split. One was an American president. The other was a group of students who overthrew the same US president and installed a new regime halfway across the world.
It was late in September 1977 when I set out on my supposed mission for an eclectic coalition comprising West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang, Italy’s Red Brigades and, much more likely given my Celtic facial features, the Provos, the infamous Provisional Irish Republican Army.
I had spent more than a year living and working at the Australian Embassy in Tehran and I was badly in need of a holiday and a break from my daily dose of an addictive mixture of culture shock and outright fascination with a foreign land. So I headed to Europe with my then wife and our one year old daughter.
Our first stop was Amsterdam. I can still see the emerald green fields of the Netherlands as our KLM flight made its approach into Schipol. We left the airport in a bus destined for the centre of the old city. During the journey we consulted our borrowed copy of Frommer’s ‘Europe on Ten Dollars a Day’ seeking a budget hotel. We were, quite simply, broke.
Why were we broke do I hear you say? Malcolm Fraser had taken power in Australia and, under his leadership as Prime Minister, government expenditure was slashed by a newly minted razor gang or, as it was known more formally, the expenditure review committee. That committee is still a standard feature of federal administration in Canberra. The then Department of Foreign Affairs faced some of the most savage expenditure cutbacks and staffing reductions. I recall that my promotion to Foreign Affairs Officer Class 1 had taken place as scheduled at the end of my training year in 1975. However, it had yet to be confirmed because of the uncertainties resulting from Mr Fraser’s stinginess. A few months after I returned to Tehran it would be duly gazetted and I would receive a large amount of backpay. But, as I looked for a hotel in Amsterdam, I was still on trainee’s pay and I had to watch every cent.
As it happened I had quite a bit of contact with Mr Fraser during the 1990s in the private sector. He was a difficult man and he had an extreme sense of entitlement that featured a reluctance to ever put his hand in his own pocket. It was his expectation that someone else would always pay all his bills despite his position of considerable wealth and his enjoyment of huge taxpayer-funded allowances. Even prosperous companies have rules relating to personal expenses but they seemed to be irrelevant in Mr Fraser’s mind. In addition, his treatment of staff was appalling even by the loose standards of those times. I have often wondered whether the celebrated ‘lost trousers’ incident was in fact an act of revenge by an aide.
But I have wandered from the subject, even though Mr Fraser’s attempts to demoralise and render almost useless major organs of Australian government might one day be considered a kind of non-violent terrorism. And, of course, his venality, in my opinion, makes him another type of unpunished offender of fundamental morality. It amazes me that he is so universally idolised now that he has passed away.
The place we chose to stay in Amsterdam was a quaint establishment beside an abrupt curve in a tiny canal. From there we could walk everywhere, including up the several flights of stairs to our room with its linoleum floors and views of an alleyway. There was no elevator, no central heating, and the communal bathroom was several metres down a narrow corridor. We were charged about US$5 per night.
But the rustic accommodation did not matter. I loved Amsterdam at first sight and I still love it now, albeit from a distance. In my opinion Dutch beer is one of Europe’s genuine miracles and I get a little teary when I recall my first cruise on the canals running into the River Amstel as dusk fell and the lights in the streets and inside the gabled buildings turned the place into a wonderland.
When we walked into the hotel foyer we were not exactly welcomed by a middle-aged man who spoke a mixture of Dutch and English as if he could not distinguish any boundaries between the two languages. He took one look at us and swallowed hard as if he had seen his own death stroll into the room. Then he accepted our money in advance for three nights and asked for our passports. The diplomatic passports we handed over somehow made him more nervous about his new lodgers. He promised to return them within 24 hours.
When we finally got our passports back two days’ later, our host apologised profusely for the delay. He explained that the city was gripped with fear of terrorism, adding that a young couple with a baby was standard travelling cover and diplomatic passports often turned out to be fakes. From that moment he was a perfect host, he and his wife cooing over our baby daughter at every opportunity. He observed that the cheap stroller we had bought in one of Amsterdam’s well-stocked shops was ‘prima’. I knew that my career as a suspected terrorist had failed dismally when I heard that most versatile of Dutch words, ‘prima’.
The American President who wins, jointly, my award for success in the field of terrorism is Jimmy Carter. His betrayal of the last Shah of Iran was an act of such ignorance and short-sightedness that I still find it hard to believe. Mr Carter undermined a friendly government by naively chanting his human rights mantra and insisting that his untested principles must be applied in circumstances that he would never understand. The Shah was disempowered not by his own countrymen but by his closest international ally. His fall was followed by years of misery for Iran and demonstrably irreparable damage to American interests. There are no reliable estimates of the associated death toll.
My other winners are the students of Shia Islam who occupied the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and took most of the American staff members hostage. Apart from the impact of their cruelty and fanaticism inside Iran, perhaps their greatest achievement was rendering Mr Carter unelectable when he sought a second term. After 444 days of captivity the US Embassy personnel were released on 20 January 1981 – the very day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as the USA’s fortieth president.
I pray the current generation of terrorists might be surprisingly unsuccessful, whatever their grotesque methods and selfish objectives.