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Washington Journal: How Will the United States Confront Terrorism?

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, July 30 (RFE/RL) -- President Bill Clinton and other American leaders are vowing to keep the United States from becoming a country ruled by fear, but Clinton has also promised to do "whatever is necessary" to protect Americans from terrorists in their own country.

The concern, of course, stems from the bombing Saturday at the Olympic Games in the southern U.S. city of Atlanta and from the growing belief by U.S. investigators that a bomb destroyed an international airliner out of New York City and killed all 230 people on board almost two weeks ago.

"Today, we have an enemy that is difficult to face, because the enemy is so often hidden--killing at random, surfacing only to perform cowardly acts," Clinton said in a speech Sunday.

"Their aim is to demoralize us as a people and to spread fear into everyday life. We must not let them do that. As Americans, we can--and must--join together to defeat terrorism wherever it strikes and whoever practices it."

The steps the president believes are necessary include new laws making it much easier for federal law enforcement authorities to spy on Americans and to identify and trace chemicals and other materials that can be used to make bombs and other exploding devices.

He called Congressional leaders from both the majority Republican and minority Democratic parties to the White House on Monday for a meeting with senior federal law enforcement officials. Clinton is asking the U.S. Congress to amend anti-terrorism legislation enacted earlier this year in order to give law enforcement more powers.

The Congress rejected Clinton's earlier request for more sweeping anti-terror legislation. However, Congress is expected to go along this time and enact tougher laws--because of the Atlanta bombing and the Trans World Airlines incident--before taking its summer recess at the end of this week

As far as acts of terrorism are concerned, the U.S. State Department says the United States is still much safer than the Middle East, Latin America, or even Europe. However, Americans are now realizing that their country is no longer safe from terrorist attacks, regardless of whether they are the work of international or domestic groups.

Attacks on U.S. military personnel at overseas bases, especially in the Middle East, showed Americans that the world outside their borders was a dangerous place. But the feeling that the nation itself was no longer immune probably began to sink in during February 1993, when a bomb exploded beneath the World Trade Center in New York City, killing seven people and injuring more than 1,000.

That attack was blamed on a group with ties to Islamic militants, so terrorism still seemed an imported product. A disturbing new element was added in April, 1995, when a bomb planted outside a government office building in Oklahoma City in the heart of the country killed 168 and injured more than 600. Two Americans--one a Persian Gulf War veteran with links to a domestic, underground, illegal paramilitary organization--were charged with the crime.

Trials for the two suspects are expected to begin soon, although no firm date is set. The men could face execution if they are convicted.

The suspects were members of an illegal "militia." Lawful militias exist in the 50 states and they are called upon to aid authorities in disaster relief operations. In recent years, however, a number of illegal, armed groups with sharp anti-government sentiments have been formed around the country, calling themselves "militias."

No one is certain who planted the bomb in Atlanta, but one line of investigation goes straight to the paramilitary, militia-type organizations. Several members of one such group outside Atlanta were arrested months ago, and bombs of the type used in the Atlanta case were seized.

Investigators have not yet eliminated all of the possibilities in the TWA case, but they are becoming more convinced that a sophisticated device of the type used by international terrorists destroyed the plane.

Clinton says it will be a hard fight against terrorism, but he also says he is convinced that the fight can be won.

"It may well be the most significant security challenge of the 21st century to the people of the United States and to civilized people everywhere," he said.