Nation on its guard

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 1995, 12:00am

AS the death toll from the callous bombing in Oklahoma City mounts, the rest of the world can do little more than express shock and offer condolences. Even organisations which have little compunction about bombing and murdering children in pursuit of their own political ends have condemned the attack in America's provincial heartland. Although there is, inevitably, an element of self-serving hypocrisy in such expressions of outraged innocence, they are a recognition of the near-universal horror with which normal human beings react to such grim slaughter. There can be no conceivable goal, no possible act of political revenge or blackmail which can justify planting a half-tonne car-bomb in the centre of a town, remote from any international dispute, with the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible.

It is a measure of how inured the world has become to terror that words have lost the power to express the real outrage one must feel at an act of such arbitrary evil. Yet it is precisely because this is a case apart that it merits the extra international attention it is bound to attract. Like the attacks on the Tokyo and Yokohama commuter systems, it will help focus minds on the dilemma facing governments worldwide: the need for greater security for vulnerable targets, and the impossibility of providing it. In an era when everything is a target, no security umbrella be effective. One necessary response is a massive investment in intelligence co-operation. It may not prevent another Oklahoma City, particularly if the culprit turns out to be locally based, perhaps a maverick sect with a lunatic agenda. But if it prevents even a small number of deaths it will have been worthwhile.

But security is not the only issue. Terrorism destroys the innocence of the societies on which it feeds. Visible groups, especially ethnic minorities associated with terror can become targets for an irrational, racist backlash. Governments, relieved to have a scapegoat for their helplessness, all-too-readily join in the attack. Even in an open, democratic society, where the rule of law restricts the power of the police and security forces to act on mere suspicion, governments may be tempted to react to terrorism by oppression. That, in turn, provides spurious justification for further terror and an environment in which terrorism thrives. It is what every terrorist aims to achieve. Even in its hour of grief, America must be on its guard.