Oklahoma City

THE snaggletoothed image of a blown-out building in Oklahoma City is as shocking as it is ugly. One's heart goes out to suffering families and brave rescue workers in this city deep in the heartland. One hopes for a quick accounting of those missing. The sooner the people responsible for this terror are caught the better. Answers are needed to avoid the frenzy and hysteria out of which harmful reactive impulses and hate are generated.

The swift dispatch of investigators and the rapid response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency are commendable, though they need followup.

The blast is causing speculation about future attacks, and second and third thoughts about how to prevent them will be forthcoming. America is a large and open country, and has been blessed with a civil ethos that has left it largely free from at least this type of unattributed terrorist violence. How to balance freedom and security in the face of a new threat -- a cohesive group or series of persons so committed to a cause and with no regard for innocent life -- needs a great deal of attention.

Civil liberties are also at stake. Will an increasing level of government intrusiveness and secrecy be demanded to deal with this threat?

One thing, however, ought to be stated at this writing: No one knows who did it. Thus, it is important not to demonize or unfairly point fingers at any ethnic group. Sadly, this has not been the case. The easy analysis is to quickly assume that this was a case of Middle Eastern political violence of the New York World Trade Center bombing stripe. Most of the terrorism specialists called in by the news media regurgitated their expertise in Middle East incidents -- though few could say why Oklahoma City would be a target. One network included an ''expert'' on terrorism who turns out to be a filmmaker. But this did not stop him from saying that inflicting the maximum amount of death on a target was a ''Middle Eastern trait.''

If in fact the culprits are not Islam-related, there is something to be answered for here. (Leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad deny involvement.)

Many groups may be guilty. It is not lost on anyone that the bombing took place north of Waco, Texas, on the second anniversary of the holocaust there, and that Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaco and Firearms was in the building. There is much antifederal invective in the air, and violence in the streets. Don't rush to judgment.

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