Copyright 1996 The Telegraph Group Limited
July 28, 1996, Sunday
SECTION: Pg. 17
LENGTH: 1097 words
HEADLINE: FOCUS: AMERICA AS VICTIM The fortress has been breached: the US, so long free from the perils of other lands, must now come to terms with being a terrorist target. James Langton reports
BYLINE: By JAMES LANGTON
ACROSS America this morning the Stars and Stripes is at half mast once more. It has barely risen since Easter. The first anniversary of the Oklahoma bombing, the attack on the barracks in Dhahran, the loss of TWA flight 800, and now the dead and injured in Atlanta. The nation has spent too long in remembrance this summer. The Olympic Games was to have been a chance to wave the flag in its proper place: at the head of the pole, on top of the world. The American people heralded each golden victory last week with a sense of triumphalism that at times seemed to border on the hysterical. Perhaps it was relief that all was well with the world, that Team USA was a winner once more. The nightmare of international terrorism could be forgotten for the glories of the Dream Team. The authorities had nicknamed Atlanta "Fort Sport", but the events of the past 12 days have shown that America is no longer a fortress. The growing belief that the loss of TWA 800 was caused by a bomb planted at Kennedy Airport and the explosion in Centennial Park yesterday show that this is a country of 250 million potential targets. It was appropriate that among those who witnessed the Atlanta bombing was the American swimmer Janet Evans. The former gold medallist has barely been off the TV screens all week since her failure in these Games. She is a slick performer, graciously wounding her opponents, primarily the Irish gold medallist Michelle Smith, with allegations of cheating, eyes wide with her own integrity. Moments before the bomb exploded in the Swatch Pavilion at the AT&T Global Olympic Village she was giving yet another interview, this time for German TV. As the sharp crack of detonation, then the crash of broken glass reached the room, she was transformed. No longer the confident Miss America, but a terrified young girl, clutching at the arms of her interrogator before wordlessly fleeing for safety. But where is safe in America now? So long free from the perils of other lands, its citizens woke up yesterday with a campaign of terror on their doorstep. Like Evans, they are as unused to being the victims as they are to losing. Both are hard to comprehend. It will take some getting used to. Somehow the attack on the Olympics establishes a pattern, a routine of violence that is familiar elsewhere. The determination of the International Olympic Committee and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) to carry on the Games as usual cannot conceal that the future must be business as unusual. Where next? The final of the baseball World Series this autumn? The Super Bowl next January? Disneyworld? There are many targets for the potential terrorist, more symbols of the American way of life than just the White House. Already President Clinton has warned that internal airport security will be stepped up and that this will mean longer queues and more expensive air fares. But a metal detector to meet Mickey Mouse? And the only thing most American shops want to know about the contents of their customers' bags is the number on their credit cards. Atlanta thought it was prepared. There were bomb squads at every site and a system of passes and accreditation so ruthlessly effective that at times it almost threatened to paralyse the Games. But the rock concert which was the target of the bombers was outside the inner ring of steel, a free event for the ordinary fan to enjoy, to dance and swap pin badges. Even though a security guard spotted the knapsack with the device within minutes, even though police had already begun to clear the area, it was already too late. As London and Belfast have long discovered, you only identify your loopholes by bitter experience. America fears terrorism, but has not lived with it. Faced with the prospect of the IRA in the cities of Britain, the tourists take off their Burberry raincoats and stay in Kansas. The first rattle of shot in the Gulf War was enough to frighten the Hollywood tough guys from the Cannes film festival. Many Americans do not venture abroad at all, where the food is funny and the air conditioning never works. They prefer to experience the world second-hand. They can walk the Great Wall of China in Florida, see the Cathedral of Notre Dame while munching a jumbo tub of popcorn and slurping Coke at their local cinema. The sense of superiority that romanticises the IRA as freedom fighters and pours dollars into Dublin may now seem less certain. America is learning the lesson of cause and effect, particularly in Israel. Foreign adventures can sometimes bring back unwanted souvenirs. Somehow America always seemed safe, an island in an uncomfortable world. From time to time - two world wars, Korea, Bosnia - it can ride out like John Wayne, but always return to shut the gates of the fortress. Such disasters which befall its citizens are mostly acts of God or nature; tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards and floods. Even the other hazards were home-grown - the car and the air crash, the right to bear arms. A reporter interviewing doctors at the hospital where many of the bomb victims were taken was told that the casualty toll was no worse than for a typical Friday night. These things are part of life. Terrorism is not. And the American brand seems to be a particularly virulent strain. At least the British Government knows that the IRA wants a united Ireland when it lays waste a Manchester shopping centre. It can seek to negotiate, to move on from the gun to the ballot box. Likewise the atrocities of ETA and the Tamil Tigers may be mindless, but not motiveless. The threat to America is still nameless and faceless. Probably it is revenge. No one has yet claimed responsibility for Atlanta, nor, if it proves to be a terrorist bomb, TWA 800. The identity of the World Trade and Oklahoma City bombers was known only because they were caught, the result of good detective work and luck. America is likely to need a great deal more of both, although prevention is more likely than cure. Suspicion almost immediately falls on the Arab world. And while far-Right fanatics and militiamen are also a possibility, it should be remembered that the Unabomber was neither. Finding those responsible will not be easy. This is a nation of foreigners as much as it is of nutcases. Witnesses to the explosion at the Games seemed confused by the flash and noise, the rapidly fading plume of smoke. Some thought it was a pyrotechnic stunt to end the rock concert. Others that it was fireworks or lightning. No one is likely to make the same mistake next time. An age of innocence is over.