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Terrorists May Have Hit Home, but the Fear Fails to Take Hold

TERROR AT THE OLYMPICS | NEWS ANALYSIS

Security: Atlanta and Saudi bombings and a suspicious air crash are likely to cramp Americans' way of life. Perpetrators usually lose in the end.

July 28, 1996|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It was a day, a week and a month that probably changed America forever--a stunning and almost unbelievable string of blatant or suspected violence against the Atlanta Olympics, a TWA aircraft and American troops in Saudi Arabia.

Henceforth, the open and easy flow that characterizes the "American way of life" will almost certainly be cramped by the kind of heightened concern and tighter security that until recently typified other societies, but never the United States.

America is changed, certainly. But not cowed.

The Olympic Games are proceeding as scheduled. Even more people turned out Saturday than had Friday; in fact, the greatest damper to attendance was the rainy weather.

TWA Flight 800 continues to fly. Over the past 10 days, all but a small percentage of passengers booked to go overseas have carried on with their travel plans.

U.S. troops remain at their posts. Officials say the reasons cited by soldiers in Saudi Arabia for wanting to come home this summer have to do with the torturous desert temperatures and Saudi arrogance, not physical threats.

So in the end, do terrorists win?

President Clinton was correct when he said that the Atlanta pipe-bombing was "clearly directed at the spirit of our own democracy." In that respect, terrorists temporarily make tangible gains; their deeds can be punishing on many fronts.

The costs of providing high-tech airline security and repositioning American troops in Saudi Arabia, for example, will each run into tens of millions of dollars. On the geostrategic chessboard of the Persian Gulf, terrorism forced a retreat to a safer position.

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Politically, the FBI, CIA, Pentagon and a host of other U.S. agencies--not to mention the inevitable series of congressional hearings--are almost certain to be preoccupied for months, if not years, with terrorism assessments and prevention.

Resources and manpower will be diverted to the perceived threat rather than being spent to further human progress or address other societal problems. The reaction will almost certainly be far disproportionate to the real dangers.

Psychologically, the impact is substantial. "Historically, the public will probably look back at this collection of individual events as a watershed after which there will be a growing preoccupation with terrorism," says Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist and head of George Washington University's political psychology program.

Indeed, while terrorism is the weapon of the weak, it has proved to be the weapon with the most impact in challenging the world's dominant power at the end of the 20th century. The yellow ribbon--a mark of American vulnerability during the hostage ordeals of the 1970s and 1980s--has almost become as much a symbol of American nationalism as motherhood, apple pie and baseball.

Yet at several levels, official and unofficial, America is showing that it can adapt. And in the end, terrorists usually lose--as the record of the past quarter-century shows.

For every electrifying picture and breathless television commentary accompanying an act of terrorism, there is a less-noticed but more comforting counterpoint: U.S. warplanes take off hourly from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to enforce Iraq's southern "no-fly" zone and come back safely. Ordinary people stroll without incident through thousands of open American parks, fairgrounds and streets. Passenger planes take off from international airport terminals across the United States and reach their destinations unscathed.

Among such facilities is bustling John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the city where just three years ago American naivete about the potential for domestic terrorism was shattered by 1,000-plus pounds of fertilizer and fuel oil packed in a Ryder rental truck and parked in the World Trade Center's underground garage by Islamic extremists.

"What happened to tourism after the World Trade Center bombing? It didn't drop. People came anyway," observes Terry Anderson, who as a seven-year hostage in Beirut can claim to have paid the greatest personal price of any surviving terrorist victim.

"Most of the major disasters haven't changed people's ideas or determination to go on doing whatever they're doing," says Anderson, who now lives in New York.

Bill Baker, a former FBI and CIA official who oversaw U.S. counter-terrorism efforts at both agencies, compares public reaction to terrorist incidents to the impact of California earthquakes. "A few can't take it and leave. But most stay," says Baker, who lives outside Los Angeles.

"We all may give more thought to flying--what airline, what airport or where we go," Baker adds. "But in the end, we'll fly. I think most people are aware that if you cancel events or plans, then that's when the terrorist wins."

The United States is not the first nation to face the challenge of terrorism--foreign and domestic, from the left or the right--and to endure.

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