A Pope of peace falls victim to a vengeful gunman
An instant before it happened, one camera's eye caught a tableau that might serve as the late 20th century's most succinct text on the metaphysics of terrorism. There, on a mellow May afternoon at St. Peter's Square, beneath the encircling Bernini columns, the most vigorously gregarious of Popes rides slowly through a sea of tourists and pilgrims. It is a rite of sweet human communion. The Pope reaches out for babies in the crowd. He gently blesses the faces that give back a radiant daze of whatever it is that they see in the mancelebrity, charisma, holiness or, at least, a huge friendliness.
But just there, floating from the left of the frame into the proceedings of history, like a shark's fin at the edge of a crowd splashing at the beach, moves a disembodied hand and its tense instrument, a blue-black pistol. It is poised there forever. And then it explodes at the Pope's white robe.
Terrorist spectacles have grown repetitious, even common place by this stage of a violent century. The global village that is the audience for such homicidal attention-getting may even be building up a sad, resigned tolerance for most of it. The world absorbs with only temporary disturbance the shocks of assassination attempts, skyjackings, long hostage melodramas and the bomb that levels the airport waiting room in the name of someone's liberation.
But the man who shot Pope John Paul II last week carried terrorism into a new territory of outrage. It seemed to much of the world that he had shattered a taboo that even assassins should observe. Nearly everyone repeated the question that the wounded Pope himself had asked: "Why did they do it?" To shoot at politicians may have become lamentably routine, but, as Canada's Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau said: "One must wonder whether our world has become so barbaric that it is incapable of respecting the lives of God's own messengers of peace." It was hardly the first time it has happened, of course. After a militant Hindu nationalist shot down Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, George Bernard Shaw commented: "It shows how dangerous it is to be too good."
The terrorist assassin's goal is always drama and publicity; his chief professional concern is (to put it grotesquely) one of casting. So there was something tragically spectacular in Mehmet Ali Agca's choice of victim. A strike of such reptilian malice against one of the globe's few authentic moral and spiritual leaders was a fiercely pure example of terrorist logic: the act should produce a profound moral dislocation, shattering not only state law but also human sensibility. The terrorist seizes what people value most and crucifies it upside down; he aims to induce a paralysis of foreboding. Every terrorist dreams of squeezing just the right nerve in the neck of civilization, of getting the "sweet spot," of hitting it big, like Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian student who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the way from a ceremony in Sarajevo and brought all of Europe crashing down in 1914.
Agca hardly accomplished that. He was, on first examination, a strange specimen of indecipherable politicsradical right and radical left curving around in his brain and meeting each other going the other way. He appeared also to be what