TCS Daily


Partial Past Responses Gave Terrorists No Reason To Pause

By Melana Zyla Vickers - September 24, 2001 12:00 AM

As the administration prepares to wage war against the terrorists who perpetrated the Sept. 11 atrocities, an uncomfortable question looms: Why hadn't the United States succeeded in defeating the foe before?

This may be the nation's greatest battle against the shadowy enemy, but not its first. Since 1986, the United States has vowed numerous times to defeat terrorist attackers. The vows followed:

  • the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.
  • the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998.
  • the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
  • the World Trade Center bombings of 1993.
  • the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988.
  • the attack on U.S. servicemen in a Berlin discotheque in 1986.


  • That's not a complete list. And not one of the attacks was decisively avenged.

    To be sure, the Sept. 11 act of terrorism, whose 6,400-plus victims make the day the deadliest in U.S. history, was massive and nation altering. Regardless of how the United States has fought terrorism in the past, it's likely the nation will now fight differently - and better.

    That's because the American will is now steeled. If the sheer difficulty of striking back at elusive terrorists explains part of the United States faltering until now, lack of will explains the balance of it.

    Consider the history of the Berlin disco attack. U.S. intelligence linked the bombing to Libyan perpetrators. As punishment, Ronald Reagan bombed Mohamar Khaddafi, narrowly missing him and killing his daughter. Khaddafi reeled, but wasn't stopped. In 1988, he retaliated with the bombing of Pan Am 103. The U.S. response? A legal proceeding on Pan Am 103 in Europe, resulting in a carefully crafted verdict that convicted two men linked to Libya, yet let Khaddafi and his government utterly off the hook.

    Perhaps fearing further escalation, or letting go of their outrage with the passage of time, U.S. political leaders had lost the will to continue waging battle against terrorism. Perversely, in 2000-01 this country came closer than ever to restoring commercial relations with Khaddafi's murderous regime.

    The history of the other terrorist attacks is more disconcerting still. After the World Trade Center attack of 1993, there was only the trial of a handful of accomplices. It served to advance the shibboleth that terrorism is a crime perpetrated by individuals, not an evil political act hatched and nurtured by governments.

    The embassy attacks saw a few missiles flung at Afghanistan and Sudan. And the U.S.S. Cole attack met no response at all.

    In most of these cases, U.S. intelligence agencies have had difficulty linking a perpetrating nation or group to the attack. And even in cases where they had evidence, the perpetrators succeeded in remaining out of reach. For example, Osama bin Laden, linked to the embassy bombings, reportedly escaped the Afghanistan camp that the United States struck after the embassy attacks on 1998. And when bin Laden was in the sights of U.S. intelligence-gatherers in 2000, the Clinton administration - whether through hesitation or slow-footedness - failed to get him.

    That failure proved fatal on Sept. 11.

    Difficult though retaliation may be, it is no longer optional. Gone are the days when terrorists and their patron states could count on a genteel U.S. response.

    The United States must now surmount the difficulties of defeating terrorism with improved intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism skill, throwing masses of manpower and resources at the problem. That process has begun, with the Bush administration's declaration of war against terrorists marking a break from the flimsy vows of the past. The pledge to punish militarily the states that harbor terrorists is also encouraging, as are plans to commit special forces to the task of exterminating the terrorists.

    Add to this arsenal an inalterably steeled American will, and the nation will be ready to defeat terrorists - for good, this time.

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