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Western Press Review: International Media Focused On Terrorist Attacks

Prague, 12 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today is dominated by yesterday's attacks on major U.S. landmarks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Some commentators say these events mark the end of America's innocence, while others say the attacks are "an act of war" committed by an unknown enemy. Still other commentary encourages the U.S. not to disengage from global affairs as a result of the attacks but to redefine its security goals and policy.


A "New York Times" editorial says that yesterday's attacks in downtown Manhattan and Washington, D.C., necessitate a rethinking of U.S. defense tactics. Concerns over terrorism, the paper writes, must move "to the center of American national security planning and operations." The best defense is adequate, timely intelligence, and much more needs to be done "to try to infiltrate terrorist groups and to track their activities and communications."

But this urgent review of national priorities poses a different risk to U.S. citizens, the paper warns. "Americans must rethink how to safeguard the country without bartering away the rights and privileges of the free society that we are defending. The temptation will be great in the days ahead to write draconian new laws that give law enforcement agencies -- or even military forces -- a right to undermine the civil liberties that shape the character of the United States. President Bush and Congress must carefully balance the need for heightened security with the need to protect the constitutional rights of Americans. That includes Americans of Islamic descent, who could now easily became the target for another period of American xenophobia and ethnic discrimination."


A second "New York Times" editorial calls yesterday's events "one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as 'before' and 'after.' " The paper says that as an urge for reprisal takes hold, it becomes hard "to match the desire for retribution with the need for certainty." The paper writes: "We suffer from an act of war without any enemy nation with which to do battle. The same media that brought us the pictures of a collapsing World Trade Center shows us the civilians who live in the same places that terrorists may dwell, whose lives are just as ordinary and just as precious as the ones that we have lost. That leaves us all, for now, with fully burdened emotions, undiminished by anything but the passage of the few hours that have elapsed since mid-morning yesterday. There is a world of consoling to be done."


Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" puts into words the thoughts of many when he writes, "This heinous attack has exceeded all powers of the imagination."

Now that people are slowly beginning to realize the enormity of yesterday's attack on the U.S., Frankenberger considers the future: "Nothing will ever be the same again, very much like following Pearl Harbor almost 60 years ago. The United States' vulnerability to terrorism is now plain for all to see. Experts have been saying for years that terrorism and the dangers emanating from non-governmental terrorist groups will be the major threats of the 21st century. Often, such assessments were not taken very seriously."

But one thing is now certain, he says: "High-tech terrorism is not a subject reserved for criminologists or thriller writers. It really exists as a weapon of war in the 21st century."


In "The Washington Post," Robert Samuelson writes that what was destroyed yesterday was not just the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, but also the sense of American serenity and security. He says that the "illusion of invulnerability" can no longer be maintained, now that everyday life in the United States seems much more uncertain. Samuelson writes: "How we respond to this new fear will take our measure as a people. We need to respect it without being ruled by it. Throughout our history, Americans have had a peculiar mixture of feelings toward foreigners -- a combination of suspicion, superiority, isolationism and interventionism. We cannot wall ourselves off from the rest of the world, but somehow we must defend ourselves against it. We need to take reasonable precautions without retreating into national paranoia," he says. "There is no obvious formula for achieving this necessary balance, and the America that pursues it has tragically lost much of the innocence and illusion of the past decade."


In the "Financial Times," Stephen Fidler says that yesterday's attacks will raise many questions about U.S. national security and foreign policy issues. If the perpetrators turn out to be, as some suggest, based in the Middle East, he asks: "Might a more activist approach to the deepening Israeli-Palestinian crisis, a show of diplomatic leadership, have made any difference?"

The issue of missile defense must also be addressed anew, since the world has now seen that the greatest threat faced by the U.S. and others comes not from long-range missiles but from hijacked planes or suitcase bombs. But Fidler adds: "The impact on foreign policy will not be limited to the Middle East and national missile defense. While the U.S. public will regard as justified any action deemed necessary to maintain national security, many of the U.S.'s allies will hope that the response is appropriate and not excessive."


In an analysis in "The Washington Post," staff writer Dan Balz examines what yesterday's events will mean for the political leadership in the United States and for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. He writes: "Bush now faces a test of leadership only few presidents have ever known. Even [former U.S. president Franklin Delano] Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor could see a clearly defined enemy and chart a clearly defined course. The enormity of what confronts Bush is difficult to overstate..."

"Almost simultaneously," Balz continues, "Bush must assess the threat and secure the country against further attack; rally the confidence of a nation gripped by a sense of insecurity and vulnerability; identify the perpetrators and produce a swift, effective and sustained response; lead the country through a period of mourning and rebuilding; correct what appears to have been a massive intelligence breakdown; and develop a long-term plan for combating terrorism."

Balz says that Bush will also "wrestle with fundamental questions of a free society as he weighs the trade-offs between additional security and the infringement of individual liberties. More than one person said yesterday that the United States will not be the same country because of the attacks. Bush's decision-making in the months ahead will determine the nature of those changes."


A news analysis in "The New York Times" by staff writer R.W. Apple Jr. says that the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon "plunged the nation into a warlike struggle against an enemy that will be hard to identify with certainty and hard to punish with precision." He says that many experts are already cautioning against assuming that any particular group or individual is responsible before all the facts are in.

As Apple writes, "Even if Washington concludes that [a] foreign terrorist group was responsible, devising an appropriate response will present a number of complications. For one thing, bombs and rockets tend to kill the innocent as well as the guilty." He quotes an unnamed Democratic U.S. senator as saying, "You're likely to bomb a city or a village with 100 terrorists and end up with 400 or 500 when the warplanes have flown away."


In today's "Washington Post," Richard Cohen writes from New York of his experience when the World Trade Center collapsed. He goes on to say that the U.S. is in a de facto war situation with an unknown enemy. Cohen was in downtown Manhattan, walking south toward the World Trade Center: "It was a noise unlike any I've ever heard," he writes. "It was a roar wrapped in thunder followed quickly by the feel of sound on your face."

Cohen continues: "The academicians -- Samuel Huntington of Harvard comes to mind -- would call this a clash of civilizations, a fight not about territory or spoils but over how to look at the world. Some people would kill themselves and take so many others with them just what? We still don't know," he says. "We may never know. We are at war, all right, but with whom?"


The "Frankfurter Rundschau" carries a commentary by Jochen Siemens describing yesterday's catastrophe as "the worst visions of an apocalyptic science-fiction film come true."

Siemens goes on to assess America's defense capabilities and the role of the Pentagon, as a center that has directed operations against terrorist targets throughout the world. "In a few moments this image has been shattered," he writes.

This strike on the West comes at a particularly bad moment, especially as the economy is suffering setbacks -- but above all it is a psychological blow, says Siemens. "The civilian population all round the world, especially in the West, is now ever more aware of terrorist violence." The U.S. will react militarily, he suggests. It is highly probable that those culpable will be hunted down halfway around the globe. Armament programs will be accelerated. Siemens predicts: "[The] world will become colder -- more hostile."


In Britain's "The Guardian," columnist Polly Toynbee considers the potential aftermath of yesterday's events, which she calls the "greatest global shudder since the Cuban missile crisis." She says any desire for revenge should be tempered by reason. Toynbee writes that previous U.S. retaliatory strikes "achieved nothing beyond deepening the passionate hatred of America in those corners of the globe. Bad intelligence, bad targeting, aimless firing off of missiles seemed to [former U.S. President Bill] Clinton a political necessity. So for the sake of world sanity and limiting the scale of this calamity, around the world people will be fervently hoping that this was another Oklahoma-style militia attack, an all-American home-grown madness."

Toynbee goes on to consider what lessons may be learned from America's tragedy: "Looking for hope is not easy," she writes. "But one good result could be a drawing together of the G-8 developed countries, Russia included, in a renewed attempt to use their combined strength to solve the worst conflicts, starting in the Middle East. The wise course is for Bush to reject the trap every previous president has been caught in, fatally handcuffed to the Israeli cause."


Today's editorial in the French daily "Le Monde" says that the events of yesterday signal "the end of a dream." The dream was that of George W. Bush, the paper writes, "protecting the U.S. from the international scene; of seeing it less vulnerable because it was less involved in the regulation of current conflicts. He ignored the Israeli-Palestinian war; finally, he swore to make U.S. national territory a sanctuary by creating an anti-missile shield."

The cold reality of the international scene -- in which there are no more rules and the U.S. is not the only actor -- has caught up with the American president, says Le Monde. The new world he has awoken to proclaims that the hyperpower is vulnerable to hyperterrorism. And now come the questions, the paper says.

Many had warned that the real strategic threat did not come from the long-range missiles addressed by a missile defense system, but from the sort of terrorism the world saw yesterday. Yet Bush stubbornly maintained a single strategic objective, says "Le Monde."


In a contribution to "The Washington Post," former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger considers the possibilities for a retaliatory attack on the perpetrators of yesterday's calamity.

He says that, heretofore, the U.S.'s response to attacks has been "to carry out some retaliatory act that was supposed to even the scales while hunting down the actual people who did it." He writes: "This, however, is an attack on the territorial United States, which is a threat to our social way of life and to our existence as a free society. It therefore has to be dealt with in a different way -- with an attack on the system that produces it."

Kissinger says that a form of retaliation is necessary, but says "it cannot be the end of the process and should not even be the principal part of it. The principal part has to be to get the terrorist system on the run, and by the terrorist system I mean those parts of it that are organized on a global basis and can operate by synchronized means. [This] is an issue on which we and our allies must find a cooperative means of resistance that is not simply the lowest common denominator."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)