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The ancient Romans considered beheading a merciful alternative to crucifixion. The Islamic State is already using both, so what’s next? The lion’s den?

The arc of terror keeps bending upward — or maybe backward — to what Secretary of State John Kerry calls “sheer evil.” Amid the Iranian revolution almost 35 years ago, in one of the seminal acts of modern terrorism, Islamic militants captured dozens of Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 of them hostage for 444 days. They were subjected to mock executions and other forms of torture, and still bear the physical, emotional and psychological burdens of their captivity.

Those mock executions were at the point of a gun. That was terrifying to the blindfolded captives, enough in itself to induce post-traumatic stress. Yet on the scale of terror, it is hard to imagine anything worse than anticipating your own beheading by knife.

Ultimately, the Islamic State executions of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff will hasten the group’s decline. The murderers created martyrs and energized the international community, including many players often at odds with each other. There will be more air strikes in their future, most likely in Syria as well as those already under way in Iraq. Newly resolute nations might even be persuaded to stand with President Obama and stop paying the ransoms that are underwriting terrorist activities.

If it takes a little time to coordinate global and regional campaigns against the Islamic State, as Kerry and other officials are doing this month, that’s fine with me. I feel the same way about not immediately raining bombs on Syria. As explained on the PBS NewsHour by Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, a national security aide to both Obama and former President George W. Bush, this is called “tactical patience.” It means waiting for the right time to ensure the best results.

Obama’s rivals can tweet, publish and expound endlessly on what he is doing wrong and saying wrong, and his poll standings may well be the worse for it. It is indisputable that Obama has fallen short of clarity and inspiration at times. It’s always best to speak precisely and forcefully, and never wise to use the phrase “we don’t have a strategy yet.” In any context.

Still, certain realities will have more substantive impact than bad optics or political attacks. One is U.S. military might. Obama may use it less frequently than some would like, but few doubt our capacities. Another is that we got Osama bin Laden. It’s a cliché already, but it stands as a triumph of persistence and a message to the world.

Most decisions involving terrorism — including the raid that killed bin Laden — are impossibly difficult. But there is actually one relatively easy, bipartisan step that Congress and the Obama administration could take to reinforce the message that if you mess with Americans, you will pay. And that would be to compensate those 52 Americans held hostage in revolutionary Iran for 444 days.

Subsequent victims of terrorism have been winning damages in court over the years, but these former hostages — soldiers, spies, diplomats and support personnel — have never been allowed to sue. President Jimmy Carter, desperate for their release, signed an agreement in 1981 barring lawsuits by the former hostages against the government of Iran. Congress tried many times to override and circumvent that agreement, only to be quashed by courts and the State Department.

The will is there now, and so is the money. The White House, the State Department and lawmakers in both parties have been talking for months about unfreezing some of the billions in Iranian assets frozen during the 1979 crisis, or adding a surcharge to sanctions on companies that do business with Iran.

The need is there, as well. Some of the former hostages came home as ruins. Thirteen have died and several are in poor health. They have all grown old waiting for an apology, reparations, some acknowledgment of their ordeal. Retired Army Col. Charles Scott, 82, who was the U.S. Army attaché, says the United States let Iran get away with an act of war. “Great Satan surrenders” was the first headline he saw upon his release. “It was a win-win situation for Iran,” Scott told me.

But it doesn’t have to be. It’s not too late to make Iran pay in some way for a monumental terrorist act in its past, and to serve notice that the passage of years doesn’t mean the erasure of memory.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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