Nightmare is now reality

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 March, 1995, 12:00am

THE motives behind yesterday's terror attack on the Tokyo subway remain obscure and incomprehensible. But the attack marks a new phase in the development of terrorism which many nations will find all-too-easy to understand. Until now the fear that a terrorist group would get its hands on weapons of mass deaths has been the stuff of action-novels and the nightmare of security forces. Now it is a reality.

Previously, the focus has been on stolen nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union. Defence ministries have been paralysed by the thought that fanatics who gun down innocent people might now get their hands on nuclear devices. But the more immediate threat of poison gas terror has not attracted so much attention. There has been less interest in what would happen if terrorist groups used the cheaper, and more readily available, chemicals for making poison gas.

Yesterday's toll is a grisly pointer to what could happen. It is a miracle that only six passengers were killed, but with more than 3,300 treated for nausea, headaches and coughing, the horror of a gas-attack has now been brought home.

As governments fighting terrorism have long ago discovered, it is impossible to pick up all guns and bombs merely by stepping up security. Gas may be even harder to find using standard body-and bag-checks. It is unlikely that a gang with the internal cohesion to launch a co-ordinated attack at so many places on the system will fall into the hands of security guards. Nevertheless, Japan and other Asian nations are going to have to take security even more seriously than they have in the past.