Copyright 1995 The San Diego Union-Tribune
The San Diego Union-Tribune
April 26, 1995, Wednesday
SECTION: OPINION; Ed. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8; Pg. B-6
LENGTH: 620 words
HEADLINE: Sorting out terrorists from kooks
SERIES: TERROR IN THE HEARTLAND BOMBING IN OKLAHOMA
BYLINE: Dan Walters THE SACRAMENTO BEE
The targets of political terrorism are not its immediate victims; they are merely pawns.
Terrorism is symbolism taken to extremes that exact terrible prices on those unlucky enough to be immediately involved. A terrorist is both demonstrating -- or so he thinks -- that his perceived enemy is vulnerable, and attempting to goad his foe into overreacting in ways that will alienate the larger population.
That's true regardless of the era, the geographic venue or the ideological conflict. And it's certainly true of last week's horrific explosion that killed scores of people inside a federal office building in Oklahoma City.
There are tens of thousands of Americans who see government as their mortal enemy. They view the Branch Davidian debacle in Waco, Texas, for example, not as a gigantic bureaucratic screw-up but as a government plot to eliminate political opposition. They believe that there are contingency plans to place gun owners and political dissidents in concentration camps. They are dead certain that there are mysterious symbols on traffic signs to guide United Nations troops into a takeover of America, and that mysterious "black helicopters" are spying on them.
Mostly, this paranoia is expressed in forms no more aggressive than letters to the editor or calls to radio talk shows. But a few thousand have formed themselves into "militias" and engaged in paramilitary training -- for defensive purposes, they say -- and some others have gone completely around the bend and moved into aggressive violence such as the Oklahoma City bombing that claimed so many innocent lives.
They, like all terrorists, would like nothing better than for federal, state and local governments to be panicked by public outrage into committing oppressive acts themselves in the name of improving security. That, in their twisted minds, would "prove" that the governments are bent on control and that further violence is therefore warranted.
Governments that have countered revolutionary terror with oppression have regretted their decisions. Its benefits, if any, have been fleeting; the escalation of violence eventually is self-defeating.
It's important to keep that history in mind as we Americans ponder what price we are willing to pay to prevent acts such as the Oklahoma City bombing -- or perhaps the letter bomb incident that claimed a life Monday afternoon in downtown Sacramento -- from recurring.
President Clinton says he wants a more aggressive campaign to monitor and infiltrate organizations suspected of plotting terror. "We're going to have to be very, very tough in dealing with this," Clinton said Sunday, adding, "I don't want to interfere with anyone's constitutional rights."
But when the federal government was conducting clandestine investigations of civil rights and anti-Vietnam War groups during the 1960s, the FBI and other agencies were so aggressive that they were actually fomenting violence. They were trampling the rights of Americans to hold extreme political views and communicate those to the broader public.
Any new laws or law enforcement programs must be targeted with surgical precision. They must seek swift and severe justice for those who actually plan or commit violent criminal acts, regardless of their demented motivations, and exempt kooks who are just blowing off steam, no matter how extreme or unpopular their views may be.
If we fail to make that admittedly difficult distinction, if we trade civil liberties for some false sense of security and begin punishing people for what they think or even say, we will be destroying what we think we are protecting. And the terrorists will have won.