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Terrorism's Challenge

July 31, 1996



Atlanta's Olympic Games go on despite the pipe bomb that cast a cloud of violence and fear over that festive occasion. The people who lost family and friends in the crash of TWA Flight 800, which increasingly appears to be the result of a bomb blast, draw on the support of those closest to them, and on the compassion of countless fellow men and women, as they piece their lives back together.

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To the degree that these events bring people together and forge a fresh determination to triumph over terror, the terrorists' goal of spreading chaos and despair is thwarted.

The Atlanta explosion and Flight 800 have refastened public attention on the difficult job of stopping individuals or groups who use violence to highlight a cause, or simply to sow discord. The response has to come at two levels: the practical, policy level, and an individual one.

These most recent tragedies will spawn a new round of toughened inspections and surveillance at airports and other places terrorists may target. This is only prudent. Airports need greater capacity to scan baggage for weapons or explosives. This is costly, and it may not come about immediately, but it's clearly a priority. More thorough checking of airline employees or contractors who board planes is another area where the need for increased alertness is obvious.

International cooperation in the battle against terrorism now has even more momentum. Security officials from the Group of Seven industrial nations and Russia are meeting in Paris this week to discuss new means of pooling information and increasing police teamwork. Useful agreements should emerge.

Recent bombings in French subways and the resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland have deepened Europe's sensitivity to the threat of terrorism. Washington's determination to fight terrorism, already heightened by the bombing of US military quarters in Saudi Arabia, is equally intense.

A cautionary note

As steps are taken to strengthen security and bolster police efforts, however, a note of caution is necessary. If terrorists' acts lead to a significant dilution of freedom, the bomb-planters win a grim victory of sorts. In the realm of security checks - at airports, or before entering large public events such as the Olympics - this is less of a concern. People may experience delays, but they appreciate the larger purpose being served: public safety.

Police methods are a murkier realm. There, a line has to be drawn between serving the legitimate ends of investigation and preserving basic civil liberties. The call for chemical tags in black powder and other explosives so that their origin can be traced is on the right side of that divide. The request for floating or random telephone bugging is questionable. If increased wire-tapping authority is granted, it should be carefully defined to prevent wholesale invasions of privacy.

Now for that second level: how we as individuals respond to events such as those in Atlanta and in the skies over Long Island. The basic need is not to cave in to fear or cynicism. Those who have sent messages of support and condolence to victims and families have moved in the right direction. So have the countless people whose prayers have communicated comfort and care.

This is a time to affirm the power of good, to remember the divine assurance in such words as these from Psalms 91, "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day."

The civic and spiritual resources available to combat terrorism are immense.