The Rome and Vienna Terrorist Attacks, 30 Years Later

Something truly horrible happened thirty years ago on Dec. 27, 1985: simultaneous terrorist attacks at the airports of Rome and Vienna killed nineteen people and injured more than 110 Christmas-time travelers. To absolutely no one’s surprise the coordinated attacks were carried out by Palestinian terrorists belonging to a group called the Abu Nidal Organization, itself an offshoot of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization.

The attacks are important to remember for a couple of reasons. First, they marked one of the beginnings of “soft target” attacks. True, it is hard to imagine an airport being a “soft target”, but in pre-9/11—make that pre-Lockerbie, Scotland—times, it wasn’t so much airports that were targeted as were airplanes. Indeed, “skyjacking” was so prevalent in the 1970s that the Miami Airport built a “dummy” Havana mock-up nearby, so that the many skyjackings would be rerouted not to Cuba, a favorite of hijackers, but to Miami.

But the Rome/Vienna attacks were something new: this was not about “going” somewhere on a commandeered fixed-wing aircraft for a political point, however misguided. Rather, these were coordinated cold-blooded homicides in defenseless environs.

The attacks were said to be in reprisal for the Israeli bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunis two months prior. But that’s kind of like saying that Norman Bates killed Marion Crane in Psycho for turning on the shower. Neither Italy nor Austria had any hand in Israeli policy, let alone the non-stop bloodbath between Israel and the PLO that has been going on for ages.

Further, neither Rome or Vienna had much to do with Israel aside from being polite “backers” of Israel’s right to exist, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of millions of militant Muslim neighbors. Even more curious: both Italy and Austria had been busy minding their own businesses: Italy, in the 1980s, while part of NATO, was enjoying a renaissance of men’s clothing and high-end automobiles, while Austria had gone from being one of the ancient European dominant military powers to little more an a tourist attraction for music-lovers and skiers. Neither could be said to have been militantly involved (or interested) in what was happening to the Palestinians in their fight for a homeland.

But even insane attacks on unarmed citizens sometimes have a logic, however warped, behind them. Vienna, of course, was the last serious holdout and pushback against the Muslim hoard during the siege of that Christian city in 1683. A good book-length account of this is John Stoye’s The Siege of Vienna: The Last Great Trial Between Cross and Crescent (NY: Pegasus Books, 2000). Thus far had Islam encroached into the mainland of Europe and no further would it go—for the time being at least.

And then there was Rome, another frustrating what-might-have-been near-hit for the Saracen invaders. In 846 Arab insurgents got right up to the Eternal City’s walls but mercifully didn’t get through them—though they’d already landed in Sicily and started their proselytizing and looting there. However, as both Old St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s were then outside the city walls, the Arabs were able to strip all the treasures of both basilicas. However, unable to get into the Eternal City, the infidels were finally pushed out into the sea (with their ill-gotten gain), but never again attacked Rome.

I mention these two instances of outright unprovoked Muslim aggression not to bring up bad blood between Muslims and Christians, but because in neither case were the attacks on Vienna in 1683 or Rome 846 in reprisal for anything Christians had done. The Crusades were long since over in the latter and hadn’t even begun in the former.

But one would be extremely foolish or at least naïve to think that the December 27, 1985 attacks on these two former megalopolises of Christendom, which had both pushed back Muslim attacks, were chosen at random. Rather, as it has been said well in Umberto Eco’s classic novel The Name of the Rose: When one’s enemies become too strong, one has to find weaker enemies. Israel, a tiny sliver of just ten million Jews, continued to thwart and infuriate Islamic “extremists” and defend itself against any number of Palestinian militants who, in all fairness, wanted what Israel had: a homeland with boundaries and a place at the United Nations.

But the trouble with this analogy is that when we see what has happened with ISIS, it’s not about some kind of land-grab and flying your own flag. It’s about a caliphate.  And a caliphate is never content with what it has, or what it acquires by the sword or airport shoot-out. It’s about spreading the word of Allah by the scimitar. Which is one of the reasons it shows up everywhere from San Bernardino to Paris, to wide swaths of Syria and the Middle East in general.

It is at this point that the epithet “Islamophobe” usually gets hurled at me. This is not only untrue, but misses the point. On Dec. 27, 1985, a cowardly attack on two defenseless Christian airports (though Jews were killed as well) in two cities that had the temerity to rid themselves of Islamic invasions in 846 and 1683, suffered murders at the hand of “Palestinian extremists. In doing so they started a pattern that has not only repeated itself, but found new and almost unbelievable permutations of carnage.

And the parting shot I usually have to hear by people who have no argument for the mowing down in cold blood of tourists in a couple of airports is, “What about the Crusades!”

As anyone who has bothered to open anything that resembles an even-handed account of those Crusades, they were, at the very worst, defensive maneuvers to free Christians who had been living more or less at peace with the Jews in the Holy Land. It is incredible that what is almost always overlooked here was it was the violent spread of Islam into the Holy Land that made Crusades necessary. True, neither side behaved themselves particularly well, even by military standards of the time—and the Jews, who were busy minding their own business in the land that was there’s from time immemorial, got caught in the crossfire through no fault of their own. And certainly by the end, the Crusades wound up hurting Christians (the sack of Constantinople by Crusaders who never bothered to make it to the Levant) more than helping those living under the yoke of Islamic oppression back in Jerusalem.

But such bald truths are tough to swallow in a politically-correct age.

Which is why when we look back—a full generation now—at the Rome/Vienna airport attacks we can do so with a sort of cool detachment that shows we should have seen, if not 9/11 coming, then at least the spate of airplane attacks (fourteen at last count, about one every other year), since the locus of such violence took place, after all, in a “soft target”: an airport.

The front page of the new L’Osservatore di Strada, which will be available June 30.

Vatican Debuts Monthly Street Newspaper

Each edition of the street paper will be organized around a theme, and include editorials by people living on the streets, joint articles by both famous writers and marginalized people, reports on Pope Francis, and a section with artistic contributions by the poor, including drawings, stories, songs, and poems.