Warnings about potential terrorist threats are becoming routine for Americans. They're reinforced by such tragedies as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and last year's attacks on US embassies in Africa.
But is the United States doing enough to head off new threats? A need for more action was underscored by a federal commission on national security in its Sept. 20 report (see excerpt, page 9).
It finds the country inadequately prepared and that, moreover, terrorist threats are likely to increase in the next quarter-century. A spread of new technologies raises the possibility of biological attacks on food supplies or sabotage of vital computer systems.
The commission's chairmen, former US Sens. Warren Rudman (R) and Gary Hart (D), say they're not being alarmist, merely realistic. So what's a realistic response?
If the US is faced with imminent terrorism, the government may need to suspend many freedoms and rights. Police might be given strong powers to round up suspects. Surveillance and security checks could range from occasional inconveniences to hourly facts of life.
But otherwise, more reasonable steps for now include enhanced security at buildings likely to become targets; keeping track of groups that are prone to political violence, to the degree that's practically and legally possible; funding research on defenses against biological attacks; and building more safeguards against sabotage into computer networks.
The Rudman-Hart report foresees that the US will continue to draw terrorists' ire in the years ahead by its sheer dominance and the potential growth of militant antigovernment groups at home. A wise foreign policy will use American influence to boost world economic development, bring peace to trouble spots, and persuade other nations to combat terrorism.
Individual citizens have a role to play, too. They can counter hatred and alienation in their own communities. And an attitude of calm vigilance and prudent preparedness, at all levels of American society, can either deter terrorists or lessen their harm.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society