Killer's Show 'n Tell

The Specialist: Revelations of a Counterterrorist By Gayle Rivers Stein and Day Publishers; 208 pp. $16.95

"DOES THE UNITED, States hire assassins?" According to The Specialist, terrorist Gayle Rivers, the answer is yes. In The Specialist, a memoir of some of his anti-terrorist operations, Rivers tries to explain what anti-terrorism is all about, and why governments should and do hire people like him to fight terrorists by whatever means they deem necessary.

Rivers says that terrorists, unlike common criminals, cannot be neutralized if the government stays within the laws and general ideas of political propriety. Because they work from countries where they have committed no crimes, terrorists are often impossible to stop legally. Even more important, they are fanatics who do not care if they kill innocent people. The only way to take on fanatics is to get them before they can do any harm. He believes the laws are not written to allow police to take preemptive action.

Rivers poses some interesting questions and makes some interesting points, but the book still isn't very satisfying. It is supposed to shock people into believing, even perhaps approving what he does, but it doesn't even entertain. Questions like "Does the United States hire assasins?" are not shocking since the CIA's assasination attempts against Fidel Castro were revealed some two decades ago. At least those stories from the Castro plots were funny.

Most of the book is an attempt to justify similar activities against criminals, not foreign heads of state. But it degenerates into repetitive scenes about how Rivers and his friends, the good guys, use knives, guns, and high explosives to kill off all kinds of terrorists, the bad guys. Rivers' idea of narration is more suited to Dirty Harry than non-fiction.

If it weren't for the Dirty Harry scenes readers would all fall asleep by page 40. Fortunately, in this book there is no space for guilt, only satisfying violence. After all, these are not innocent people being exotically eliminated, but rather slimy fanatics who in some sense deserve what they get.

What red-blooded American doesn't love graphic stories about killing IRA gun runners. Basque terrorists, Syrians, Druze, and Iranian lighters who after all are the scum of the earth? I like Dirty Harry, Rivers doesn't mess around with stupid questions like "who is responsible" or "Is it legal." He gets right down to the good stuff, like now to blow up a terrorist's Renault while he is sticking his head under the hood.

Although Rivers' graphic detail is gruesomely satisfying, his writing leaves something to be desired. One example of his less-than-brilliant prose comes from a message he supposedly sent for the U.S. government.

"Chuck finished him [a Druze militia man] with the classic knife attack. He grabbed the man's collar and twisted hard, dragging him downward, choking, with his throat exposed. The movement almost drags the throat onto the knife, and Chuck cut both the artery and the windpipe in a single cut."

This "how to" book style just doesn't do the job.

BETWEEN THESE HIGH action scenes are a few in which we witness the author free associating. After some fast-paced violence, nothing could be duller than the author explaining his principles.

"Even though I am a mercenary, I believe in a soldier's honour, but I'm not a blind follower of causes...I don't wave the Stars and Stripes, but I believe in American society, even through I can see its flaws."

He does this at least four times, turning some tolerably good violence into dull monologue.

Aside from the narration, which but for the action would be unsalvageable, the worst thing about The Specialist is that it is probably not true. Although Rivers stories about killing a Greek arms dealer, helping, he Iraqi army blow up Iranian shipping, and carrying out missions to stop the shelling of the Marines in Lebanon are plausible, someone in such a dangerous business would not say so specifically exactly what he did and to whom. The kind of detail in this book makes it unbelievable. Anyone could track down and kill the author if the details were anywhere near true. The author is probably a part-time librarian who reads newspaper clippings and James Bond novels and lets his imagination do all the rest.

The book isn't very imaginative, and it seems like more of an excuse to get in some old-fashioned, good-selling violence than anything else. Even after the violence begins to sour, there is still one interesting thing in the book. It is the question of how to fight terrorists.

Fortunately, as the author has pointed out, the United States has never had a terrorism problem. However, that does not mean that we will never have one. If one arises, will we stop it by hiring professionals like Gayle Rivers, whose actions are effective, deniable, and often illegal? If we do break our own laws to fight terrorism, to what degree are we compromising ourselves? Most important, would we be able to do what we might have to do?

Rivers points out that his alleged mission against the Syrians cost the U.S. government $120,000, "less than the cost of a slavo fired into the Shoul Mountains from the 16-inch guns of the battleship New Jersey." It was a lot more effective than the artillery, and nobody got hurt accidentally. The services of a specialist seem like quite a deal, so why not admit it, and maybe do it more often?

The Specialist is really just a hodgepodge of lectures on anti-terrorism, a killer trying to explain himself, and a few interesting questions against a background of some Hollywood-style violence. Intellectual literature this book is not.