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The Bomb's Grim Lesson


It had to happen -- this grotesque imposition of terrorism upon America.

Throughout the war against Iraq I expected something akin to last Friday's bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. But America was on guard during "Desert Storm," and any terrorist act at that time would immediately have been attributed to Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

But now this "world-class hit" on the Trade Center gives us gruesome evidence that America's skyscrapers, train stations, airports, water supplies and sports arenas are not immune to the political madness that have made killing fields of Beirut, Cairo, Frankfurt, London, Paris, and Bogota, Colombia.

More than 16 telephone calls have been made to New York police by individuals and groups claiming credit for the sophisticated blast at the Trade Center. That ought to be a sobering commentary on the numbers of groups and people who wish to destroy the United States.

First suspicions have been hurled at the Serbians, who may have been preparing for weeks to deliver a wicked dose of terrorism at the first moment of U.S. intervention in the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Some think President Clinton's decision to airlift food and medicine to the desperate people of Bosnia gave the Serbs or Croats the "bombs away" signal.

But what if this huge wound to the heart and pride of America has nothing to do with Bosnia? Do we get inflamed over speculation that this act of terror is the delayed revenge of Saddam Hussein and Iraqis who know how many of their people were killed when the U.S. rained missiles and bombs on Baghdad?

Some note that the Hezbollah (Islamic Jihad) is to car bombs what the Swiss are to watch-making. It is possible that Hezbollah is wreaking revenge for Desert Storm, which they see as nothing more than a U.S. effort to tighten its grip on Middle East oil.

Speculation as to who ordered the Trade Center bombing runs (( from the Irish Republican Army to Puerto Rican nationalists (the FALN) to Colombian drug dealers, and many others. There are even whispers that a U.S. "ally" could have staged this bombing so as to intensify U.S. hatred of some of the groups mentioned above.

Terrorists spread distrust within the ranks of their foes. The Trade Center bombing offers us no lesson as to whom we should hate with greater passion. But it tells us plenty about the limitations of America's ability to pacify people in conflict and control events in every corner of the globe.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Americans have lived under a delusion that "we are the only real superpower left," thus only we can neutralize the warlords of Somalia, mute the tribal passions of Yugoslavia, impose a pax Americana in virtually any corner of the globe.

The terrorists are telling us that there are stark limitations on even America's use of military superiority, especially nuclear arsenals. The Iraqis know that they can never challenge conventional U.S. forces. The Soviets decided that they could not now match a U.S. lurch into star wars technology. But terrorists from many weaker, troubled lands think that they can exact a horrendous price for any U.S. effort to control world events through military force.

The lesson now is that the U.S. must never abandon diplomacy until there is absolutely no hope beyond trying to invoke military power. Our armies, intelligence squads, police units are not big enough to protect all the U.S. targets of terrorists.

The macho line is to denounce terrorism and declare that we Americans are not frightened and can never be intimidated. That seems like great local politics, but it only dares those who are aggrieved to the point of near-insanity to see how many bombings it takes to intimidate us.

We must identify and give proper trials and punishment to bombers and other terrorists. At the same time, we must be sure that we do not wage war on the weak of the world while we tolerate the sins and outrages of countries we regard as racial brothers, or as privileged beyond the reach of U.S. military assault.

The United States needs a great corps of diplomats now more than it did in the most chilling days of the Cold War. We ought to use them in ways that get us away from any bomb-for-a-bomb scenario.

Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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