espite several large, high-profile terrorist incidents in the United States over the past few years, terrorism is actually on the decrease in this country, according to several experts interviewed by the Kaleidoscope Interactive Network.
However, some of these same experts charge that government officials, bent on garnering votes and reassuring a jittery constituency, may waste millions of taxpayer dollars to meet a threat that has been greatly over estimated.
The explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, N.Y., which killed all 230 people on board, is a gruesome reminder that such incidents can strike swiftly, unexpectedly and with tragic results. Although the July incident has not officially been ruled terrorism, many experts say the evidence indicates it was a bombing.
While the slow sifting of evidence has yielded few official explanations, there's been no shortage of official reactions. President Bill Clinton has ordered new airport security measures to begin this month, and he asked Congress for a $1.1 billion airport security and anti-terrorism package aimed at bolstering one he signed just two months before Flight 800 went down. That law gave broad new powers to investigators and prosecutors in the fight against terrorism.
The experts say terrorism is always a threat, but most agree the political reaction so far has been aimed more at addressing perceptions than problems. Most of the money will be wasted, they say, and the result will be longer delays, higher traveling costs, and more intrusive security checks. Few lives will be saved, they say, because the risks already are statistically very slight.
ounter terrorism expert Frank G. McGuire, the author of the two-volume Security Intelligence Sourcebook, said despite recent highly lethal, dramatic incidents, the terrorist threat in America is exaggerated beyond proportion. "It's all being done because it's an election year. People want to believe the president is doing something to protect them," McGuire said. "If you make airports into hard targets, the terrorists simply will switch to softer targets."
Soft targets include government buildings, like the one targeted in Oklahoma City, telecommunications and rail transport centers. McGuire said if more money can be found to reduce the threat of terrorism in America, it would be better spent bolstering security at those targets, not at airports where the public is already well protected.
"To talk about a rising threat of terrorism in the United States is grossly irresponsible," said Larry C. Johnson, vice president for security operations at BGI and Explo-Tec, Inc., a counter-terrorism consulting firm near Washington, D.C. Even if the TWA crash is found to be a terrorist act, Johnson said, the current public hysteria is not justified. "Terrorism (in the U.S.)," he said, "is at its lowest level in decades."
Three big incidents have riveted public attention on a fairly narrow time frame. Statistics viewed over a longer period show a fairly steady downward trend since 1987, according to Johnson, who noted that there were no terrorist incidents in the United States in 1994; 12 incidents in '93; four in '92, and five in '91.
What is changing, Johnson said, is the high mortality resulting from the attacks. Oklahoma City and Flight 800 took nearly 400 lives. Those exceptionally high death tolls and the more than 1,000 wounded at the World Trade Center have distorted the picture. Without those exceptional incidents, even the total number of casualties had been declining for more than a decade, Johnson said.
he three big bombings have shocked the nation. In Oklahoma especially the loss of many small children added to the pain. On a less emotional level, however, the attack also drove home a new and unexpected message. Oklahoma City is not a major media center. It is not a corporate or governmental center. It is Main Street, USA. That fact alone helped to further magnify the shock.
Oklahoma City, and other recent attacks as well, illustrate an important shift in domestic terrorism, Johnson said. There has been a disconnection between the attacks and any discernible political motive.
"In Oklahoma City, the Unabomber, the Arizona train derailment [that followed the 1994 Waco catastrophe] and very likely in Flight 800 what we've seen are individuals engaged in acts of mass murder for revenge," Johnson said.
Almost without exception the experts who have written about these events and those contacted for this report agree that more coordinated intelligence gathering and cooperation by disparate law enforcement agencies should be a priority. Closer international cooperation is essential. There should be greater focus on "soft" targets, especially at strategically important commercial and military sites away from big cities.
Reports of vigilantism, especially in the Southern and Western United States have painted a picture of a new emerging threat from militant right-wingers. Most counter-terrorism experts agree that they are a potential threat, especially from the lunatic fringes of most of those groups. They emphasize, however, that there's been scant evidence that these groups pose any serious, organized threat.
In an email interview with the Kaleidoscope Interactive Network, Laird Wilcox, co-author (with John George) of the 1992 book Nazis, Communists, Klansmen and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America, said: "I think the threat from domestic terrorism is vastly exaggerated by the media. In a normal year, we lose three or four people to domestic terrorism in the U.S. More people will be struck by lightning. The usual run-of-the-mill wacko fanatic bomber is a very minor problem in the USA."
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