Fighting terrorism: CBS delves into the moral questions

Democratic nations are united in their denunciation of terrorism. The unanimity breaks down, however, as they disagree about the ethics involved in fighting terrorism. Walter Cronkite, in a thought-provoking CBS Reports, Terrorism: War in the Shadows (Wednesday, June 19, 10-11 p.m.), delves into the morality of various aspects of terrorism, pointing out that often, in effect, terrorism is in the eye of the beholder. One man's terrorism, he implies, may be another man's patriotism or religious fanaticism. There are complex distinctions between restraint and appeasement, self-defense and aggression, Cronkite points out. Unfortunately he never gets around to explaining those distinctions very clearly.

What is also never pointed up quite vividly enough, it seems to me, is the fact that terrorists victimize innocent people rather than the establishment they allegedly fight. One may understand, if not condone, military action against military targets, but military action against women and children is always indefensible. It cannot ever be accepted as a valid means to draw attention to any cause.

How do we fight terrorism?

With barricades. With counterintelligence. With tightened security. One expert reveals that international terrorist groups now have complicated infrastructures that can provide safe houses, travel documents, explosives to terrorists in America. Another expert warns that the future probably holds attacks on our major power transformers, which are not now properly defended.

Missing in the documentary are many basic aspects which are needed to come to rational and ethical conclusions. Where do the American people stand on the issue of reprisals? Where does Libya's Qaddafi come into the picture? And the IRA? ``War in the Shadows'' is itself a mere shadow of a documentary which, perhaps, needs more than a sparse hour to thoroughly investigate such an important subject.

Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger makes perhaps the most shocking, prodding statement of all on camera in suggesting that we might get back into the covert-operations business: ``I don't believe there's anybody in this world who would argue that if in 1934 to 1937 somebody had shot Adolf Hitler, the world would have been the poorer for it.''

What Eagleburger does not say and what Walter Cronkite fails to point out to him is the fact that there are people who would have said the same thing about Anwar Sadat, Indira Gandhi, Fidel Castro, and even John F. Kennedy.

``I think we're going to be caught up in low-intensity conflict of one form or another for the next 20 years. And we've got to decide ethically what we are willing to do,'' concludes this unnervingly incomplete documentary. How to deal with terrorism and nuclear bombs constitute the two greatest moral problems of our age. And it is to be hoped that these two problems never fuse into one . . . something nobody even likes to consider. It is something this bell-ringing documentary -- sketchy, apprehensive, and even alarmist as it is -- didn't dare to consider either.

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