Tripping Over Terrorism

America has some growing up to do if it is to cope with the sense of vulnerability generated by modern terrorism. Congress has balked at giving the FBI enhanced wiretapping authority. On the ground, says Speaker Newt Gingrich, the FBI has been too cozy with the Clinton White House. One suspects that the reaction would have been different if we were dealing with cold war Communist subversion instead of targets like the violence-prone militias.

Suffice it to say that countries like Britain, France, and Israel, more inured to the terrorist threat, have long since overcome their scruples about antiterrorist eavesdropping and peremptory police measures.

We will have to learn that solutions to possible terrorist acts do not always come in time for the next news cycle. Weeks after TWA 800 and the Atlanta pipe bomb we know essentially nothing about the origin of these events. Yet we are treated daily to stories about the prime - and sometimes less prime - suspect in Atlanta. On Long Island, the vacuum of knowledge is filled with assumptions and surmisals, the latest being that Iran may have been involved in the bomb explosion aboard TWA 800 - that is, if it was a bomb explosion.

Speaking of Iran, rarely have I seen such a search for demons. President Clinton declares economic war against allied nations that deal with Iran and Libya. I do not know what possessed Secretary of Defense William Perry, normally cautious and restrained, to suggest in his NPR interview that a foreign country, possibly Iran, may have been involved in the Riyadh and Dhahran bombings.

That produced the predictable knee-jerk reactions by congressional leaders appearing on Sunday television. "Get tough" - Senator Orrin Hatch. "Decisive action" - Newt Gingrich. "It's an act of war" - Senator Joseph Biden.

In fact, there is precious little concrete evidence of widely suspected state sponsorship of recent acts of terrorism. There were military-type detonators on the Dhahran bomb. Iran has shipped some mortar parts and shells to Antwerp en route somewhere. A conference of terrorists was reportedly held in Tehran.

Intelligence sources believe there are 11 terrorist training camps in Iran.

All this falls short of the traditional smoking gun that would justify a retaliatory strike. Counterterrorism is a tough, painstaking business, best carried on with a minimum of fist-shaking and breast-beating. Terrorism is not a phenomenon of the moment, but a successor to the Cold War - "the enemy of our generation," as Mr. Clinton put it. It behooves us and our elected officials not to go off half-cocked.

Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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