THERE IS AN OLD AMERICAN SAYING that the way to get a mule's attention is to hit him with a two-by-four. And if that doesn't work, hit him again.

In the case of the recent terrorist bombings in France, could it be that a two-by-four in the form of high explosives tossed into a trash can on a busy street has finally caught the attention of the French - and the rest of Europe?Paris is outraged. Citizens are demanding the restoration of the guillotine. Prime Minister Jacques Chirac vows to crush those responsible. But it has been France that has repeatedly failed to support the United States in its attempts to isolate sponsors of terrorism, such as Libya, and denied the U.S. Air Force the right to fly through its airspace.

European Community interior ministers are to hold an "emergency" meeting to discuss what to do about terrorism. The real question, though, is: Is this effort at long last for real, or is Western Europe just mouthing pieties again?

It's not just the French who deserve criticism for the way they've handled terrorism over the last several years. Most European nations have acted with pusillanimity when confronted with terrorist threats, particularly Arab terrorism. France, Italy and other countries actually are alleged to have had an unwritten agreement with various terrorist organizations to go easy on them if they refrained from conducting operations on their soil. This didn't work, of course. Deals with bullies usually don't.

This absurdity reached its height last fall. After the Achille Lauro hijacking, and the murder of a wheelchair-bound American passenger, we witnessed the sad spectacle of the Italian government allowing a prime suspect in the case, the notorious Abu Abbas, to flee Italy, and then, after he was gone, issuing an arrest warrant! This poor judgment was underscored when terrorists shot up the main terminal at Rome's airport just a few weeks later.

We write this not to gloat and with understanding that Europeans are much closer to retaliation by Mideastern terrorists. But we also suggest that if France had been tougher on terrorists earlier on it would have suffered less for it today.

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