New York: Living with Violence


More than three days after the huge blast that rocked New York's World Trade Center, there are far more questions than answers about how and why it happened. The first question on most Americans' minds is whether it marks the start of an outbreak of attacks. There have been other bomb atrocities in New York and Washington in past decades -- none has proved to be part of a series, or at least has succeeded in becoming one. The real danger to ordinary citizens, in the country's political and financial capitals as well as elsewhere, is the mentally unbalanced copy cat.

Security measures have been strengthened at many public buildings, including Baltimore's World Trade Center. Although this country has been relatively free of explosions designed to terrorize a population, we have long adjusted to measures designed to reduce the risks. Baggage searches at airports, metal detectors at public buildings, barriers in front of the White House, checking visitors' identities at office buildings, basement garages closed to the public -- all have become part of our routine. After Friday's explosion, there should be a little more of the same.

How much more Americans will have to learn to live with the threat of indiscriminate violence -- as, for example, Londoners have -- depends on what investigators find in coming days and weeks. The very nature of the explosive device, even without knowing immediately who made and placed it, will provide important clues. It may have been an act of political terrorism, it may have been a personal grudge, it may have been a simple case of insanity. On the basis of evidence so far, it is not clear whether the explosive device was cleverly placed to achieve its purpose or whether it was randomly located in the hope of doing substantial but indiscriminate damage. Were people the targets? Was heavy structural damage to the 110-story tower the object? Was the mass transit station below the objective? Or was permanently disabling the center's critical services?

In none of these scenarios was the explosion successful. If the explosion was simply intended to send a message, it has not yet been received, since no group has convincingly identified itself as the perpetrator. Judging from yesterday's response by businesses and employees at the huge office complex, the terrorist objective of panicking a population has not resulted, either.

Investigators seem to have more leads than is usual in bombing cases, including the license numbers of vehicles that were in the underground garage. Some bomb atrocities remain unsolved, but their barbarity rarely succeeds. We might end up paying the price of further tightening our open society, but the criminals behind the explosion will get little more satisfaction than that.

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