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Responding to Terrorists

Reports of a Central Intelligence Agency counterterrorism action that missed its target but killed 80 innocent persons in Beirut have been denied by the agency and may not be true. But the reports provide a useful opportunity for Americans to reexamine national policy on the subject of international terror and to assess the adequacy of governmental programs, policies, restraints and controls.

There is no simple response, as was made clear in the careful analysis by Robert E. Hunter of Georgetown University, published on these pages Tuesday. The United States, because of its power, wealth and world role, can escape neither vulnerability nor the extraordinary influence of its actions on the behavior of others.

The story of a possible CIA Beirut disaster has a certain plausibility because such adventurism would be consonant with actions threatened-- especially since the attack on the American Marines in Lebanon in October, 1983--by President Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. They argued then, and they have continued to argue since then, that the United States must respond to terrorism, must not seem helpless, must be prepared for both preemptive action and retaliation.

Shultz made an appeal for public understanding and support even if “some innocent people” and “some of our fighting men” get killed. “The public must understand before the fact that occasions will come when their government must act before each and every fact is known--and the decisions cannot be tied to the opinion polls,” he also said.

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The summation of the Administration’s policy came in these words from the secretary of state: “If we truly believe in the values of our civilization, we have a duty to defend them.”

There is, unfortunately, a fundamental contradiction in all this. The government cannot persuasively argue the importance of public understanding while at the same time rejecting public opinion. The values of American civilization cannot escape depreciation if they are jettisoned in the fight to defend them.

Put another way, the United States is likely to lose more than it gains if it chooses to fight fire with fire, to abandon principles and values and a commitment to justice in a panic response to the ugly, vicious, unprincipled assault being mounted by extremists of many persuasions.

This does not mean that the United States is defenseless, helpless or even weakened by the assault. There are defenses appropriate to the values and principles of American civilization that do not undermine those values and principles. There will be occasions for the appropriate use of force, just as there are compelling reasons for better defenses, better intelligence, better preventive action.

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Those appropriate responses will enjoy the public approbation essential in a democracy, just as excesses, including the taking of innocent lives, will inevitably invite disapproval. In the search for what is appropriate, the Administration must not fail in its commitment to keep fully informed those in Congress with the responsibility for oversight. In the government’s search for ways to defend those values, the values will be strengthened to the extent that they are respected.


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