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U.S.: Experts Say Danger Lies In Irresponsible Response To Terror Attacks

  • Don Hill

The United States and its allies have stated their intention to retaliate for the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and to guard against such attacks in the future. Experts on terrorism and counter-terrorism warn that the response must be measured, targeted and intelligent. They tell RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill that a general lashing out, undue suppression of civil rights or misdirected revenge would be as dangerous to future security as the original attacks themselves.

Prague, 14 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Experts in the United States, Britain, continental Europe, and elsewhere have said repeatedly that another danger looms beside the physical horrors of terrorist acts -- the danger that liberal democracies will surrender their own freedoms in reaction to terrorism.

After this week's attacks in New York and Washington, specialists in counter-terrorism and civil liberties are saying that the United States and its allies must respond with a scalpel and not a scythe as they seek to retaliate and to guard against further atrocities.

Most agree that some curtailment of Americans' treasured individual freedoms will be unavoidable. In the words of Gerd Nonneman, a professor of international affairs at Britain's Lancaster University:

"The U.S. citizens will no doubt have to get used to -- in various little ways, but that together will have an impact -- will have to get used to changing some of their way of life."

Early in 1997, the Gore Commission on Aviation Safety and Security -- named for its chairman, then-Vice President Al Gore -- proposed a number of measures to protect U.S. airliners against hijackings and other dangers. Airline companies and civil liberties groups, including privacy advocates and Arab-American organizations, opposed some of its recommendations -- especially one to mandate extra-rigorous safety checks of passengers fitting a profile of potential hijackers. The device is called "profiling."

U.S. authorities adopted commission proposals for international flights but rejected many of those regarding domestic air traffic. Nonneman told our correspondent that the U.S. public gave perhaps undue weight to arguments that seemed cogent at a time when people perceived the dangers to be minimal.

Despite its well-known guardians of civil liberties, the United States government has bowed deeply before public pressures at times of stress. Most often cited is its interning of American citizens of Japanese descent at the beginning of World War II.

Lancaster University's Nonneman, who also is director of Britain's Society of Middle East Scholars, says that profiling, carefully applied, can be an acceptable and useful security tool:

"The concern about attitudes and liberties that worries me more is toward whole groups of people -- anybody who is identified as having a dark skin or a moustache or is Muslim or is Arab or Iranian in origin. That will be very dangerous because even if it is not legislated for, it's the sort of thing that can be set popularly and that can come up from the grass roots."

Nonneman says that the key to a measured and appropriate U.S. response -- both in preventive steps and retaliation -- is careful investigation and strengthened intelligence.

"Clearly, every possible effort is going to have to be made to find out who, what, is behind this, and that then, if this can be done, very sharply targeted responses will get support from virtually all quarters."

Terrorism experts say that the U.S. government can adopt both retaliatory and preventive measures without unduly straining either civil liberties at home or relations abroad only after effective intelligence and investigation establishes reliable evidence.

William Gutteridge is a specialist in Third World military forces and professor-emeritus at Britain's Ashton University. Gutteridge says grave dangers lie in appearing to declare war on classes of people or encircling too large a group in any ultimate target area:

"Well, the first step they [U.S. authorities and others] can take, of course, is the strengthening of the intelligence services in order to have much greater knowledge of what is going on in these remote places where such things are planned."

That means in part, Gutteridge said, putting more and better agents in the field:

"I have a strong impression -- not only with regard to the United States but even with regard to Britain -- that since the end of the Cold War, there has come to be far too great a reliance on satellites and electronic intelligence and too little reliance on human intelligence."

Gutteridge says he believes the worldwide solidarity with the United States declared this week is deeper and stronger than mere words and symbolism. But, he said, it could fade if other nations perceive a U.S. response to be ill-advised:

"I think the solidarity is partly a question of anxiety that the United States might, in fact, be so angry at this stage as to adopt a policy of indiscriminate retaliation -- or very large-scale retaliation -- not distinguishing carefully the targets."

In the United States this week, politicians of both parties and of the U.S. right and left have gathered -- as have NATO member nations and others -- in unity behind the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush. But, as the experts predicted, loud voices are calling out for quick and massive retaliation and for extensive actions to tighten domestic security.

Professor Nonneman put it succinctly: "I expect that President Bush will find it necessary to resist great pressures."

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