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Terrorism: The Casualties Are All of Us

  • Don Hill

Prague, July 30 (RFE/RL) -- Terrorism--seeking advantage or notoriety through random attacks on otherwise uninvolved individuals--does not reap its power from the bodies left strewn by bombs, sabotage, and automatic weapons.

Terrorism's longest casualty list numbers all the rest of us, our lost sense of security, our trust in the goodness of mankind.

Since toxic gas attacks in Japan's transit system two years ago, hundreds of thousands of commuters battle stomach-tightening tension as they travel between packed suburbs and busy downtown offices.

Where could a citizen be safer than in a federal building with FBI and U.S. marshall's offices in Oklahoma City in the American heartland? And how could a citizen ever feel safe again if he or she were there April 19, 1995, when a car bomb made of ordinary fertilizer chemicals blew away the building's face and killed 168 people?

Israelis have been surrounded since their nation's founding by hostile forces embittered by displacement, poverty and competing claims to Palestinian territories. Israelis' sense of insecurity grew to new heights early this year. In three separate incidents in February and March, Islamic Hamas suicide bombers detonated bombs--two on buses, one in a crowded mall--that killed 56.

Ordinary citizens of France, targets of Algerian rebels; of England and Ireland, victims of IRA struggles for national independence; of Russia, locked in conflict with secessionist Chechnya, feel the fear.

An airline traveler can be as apolitical as a cloistered nun and still feel it. The verdict isn't in on whether TWA Flight 800 was bombed two weeks ago by a terrorist. But if this were a terrorist act, it would be one of a string of unprovoked attacks on unarmed passenger airliners.

The immediately previous major incident was during Christmas, 1994, when Algerian Moslem gunmen hijacked an Air France liner at Algiers airport. They killed three passengers before ordering the plane to Marseilles. There, French commandos stormed the aircraft, killed the hijackers and freed the hostages.

Obviously, fans attending the Olympic games in Atlanta feel it. Since their resumption after World War II, the Olympic games have stood for international sportsmanship and athletic excellence. But the Olympic moments the world remembers most powerfully, along with the murder of Israeli athletes almost 20 years ago, now will always include the looks of shock and disbelief in the crowd last Saturday when the crude pipe bomb exploded in an Atlanta park during a concert.

From a cold, statistical perspective, the number of deaths in all the most notorious terrorist incidents internationally in the last two years is surprisingly small, given their political impact--about 600. More than 14 times that number die in traffic accidents in Poland in a given year, more than 140 times that number on U.S. highways.

The world's reaction obviously is not proportionate to the body count. It clearly responds to the perceived threat to world order.

So far this year alone: A huge bomb went off on February 9 in London, killing two and injuring 100. The Irish Republican Army, which had been observing a 17-month ceasefire with Britain, claimed responsibility. Nine days later, a bomb went off on a London bus. Police think the IRA bomber himself was among the 26 who died in that blast. Then came the Hamas bombings in Israel. In June a bomb exploded on the Moscow underground. Four died. An IRA car bomb disrupted the European soccer championships in Manchester, England.

The fuel-truck bomb that killed 19 U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia was in June.

And, also in June, leaders of the G-7 group of industrial nations pledged at their annual summit to make the fight against terrorism, as their communique put it, an "absolute priority."

But then, pointing up the impotence of the rich and powerful in a world that also shelters the dark, the hidden and the raging, the summit was followed by a month of horrors that included the bombing of a hotel in Northern Ireland on July 14, the as yet unexplained explosion of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, the bombing at Spain's Reus airport on July 20, another bomb at Pakistan's Lahore Airport on July 22, and the Atlanta Olympics pipe bomb on July 28.

And now comes another G-7 meeting today, this one in Paris, this one assembling foreign and interior ministers from G-7 members: Britain, Canada, France, German, Italy, Japan and the United States. Russia is also participating.

The ministers are expected to agree on a package of measures to fight unnamed terrorists. But they are expected to differ on actions against countries such as Iran and Libya, which are accused of offically sponsoring terrorism.

Unfortunately, there's more to this story. But it hasn't been written yet.