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Coping With Terrorists

President Reagan said many things on Wednesday concerning the problem of international terrorism--some truculent, some bellicose, some just plain angry. None of those will facilitate finding a better defense. But he also promised to “go looking for the facts.” That is what counts most at this moment.

Moammar Kadafi is part of the problem, but not the entire problem. Palestinians are part of the problem, but not the entire problem. There is no way to wipe out global violence by striking at a single seat of terrorism. But keeping a cool head is not easy. The spread of violence, the slaughter of innocent bystanders in aircraft and in discos and at airports, the inflammatory language of those who sponsor the acts of murderous destruction can easily unbalance judgment, inspire panic and hysteria and create the risk, in the end, that the targets of terrorism will end up doing more damage than the terrorists themselves.

The first fact to be remembered is that the United States cannot solve this problem by itself, however clever the Central Intelligence Agency, however mighty the 6th Fleet. Unilateral adventures, such as the deployment of aircraft carrier battle groups along the Libyan shore, are more likely to complicate matters and alienate friends than bring Kadafi to concessions.

Accepting that the United States cannot go it alone also means that the United States must respect its allies and their wishes. Only then is there the basis for consultation to contrive a joint strategy, a cooperative approach. Some people will argue that consultations will result in strategies that are less pugnacious than those most talked about in Washington. Probably. So be it. At least the alliance will not have been eroded by the purveyors of international terror.

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Allied cooperation is important not just in military and diplomatic decisions but also in police work itself. The complex task of rooting out terrorists is more likely to be productive through vigilant police and intelligence work than through bombing raids on suspected training camps and missile launchers. The President has reported a substantial number of attacks already thwarted through careful defensive work. The Europeans themselves, particularly the Germans fighting the Baader Meinhof gang and the Italians fighting the Red Brigades, have found no substitute for that painstaking, often frustrating but ultimately successful approach.

Kadafi may be, as Reagan suggested, “the Mad Dog of the Middle East.” But there is a risk, in placing him at the center of attention, that he is being given authority and status that none of his Arab neighbors want to accord him. And there is the risk that threats against him, especially when it is acknowledged that suspicions rather than facts motivate the call for retaliation, will only diminish the forces already at work in his own country to end his totalitarian rule.

Terrorism is the tool of small bands of cowards who know that they cannot compete in the free exchange of ideas or at the ballot box. But terrorists often attract broader popular support in situations of deep frustration with complex political and social situations. Terrorists must be fought in ways that isolate them from the broader base that may share the sense of frustration but be repelled by the violence.

As the President and America’s allies get the facts, there will be a clearer picture, perhaps, of what needs to be done. That process of consultation will at least make possible a joint response to the problem.

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