Rules and regulationswon’t deter terrorists

The still-unexplained explosion of TWA Flight 800 and the pipe bombing in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta are tragic events. They are also significant examples of a frightening trend: The United States and its citizens are more vulnerable to calculated violence than ever before. These two apparent acts of terrorism, occurring a mere 12 days apart and leaving hundreds dead or injured, have rattled the nerves of most Americans, provoking calls for more strict law enforcement practices.
Thus, it was hardly surprising when President Clinton and congressional leaders met Wednesday to discuss new ways to combat terrorism on American soil. Clinton’s requests amounted to an expansion of previous anti-terrorism legislation, which passed earlier this year in response to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Among the potential solutions presented: chemical additives, called taggants, which would allow explosives to be traced; broader FBI capacity to wiretap suspected terrorists; and additional funding. These proposals, however, point out another disturbing American trend: When faced with a problem, government officials oftentimes attempt to legislate that problem away.
Granted, no one wants to see any more incidents like those witnessed in Oklahoma, New York and Georgia. But we must remember that, in a free society, those who want to inflict pain on others in this manner will likely do so, regardless of legislative attempts to deter them. Rather than reacting to demonstrated insanity with more rules and regulations, leaders should attempt to seek out and understand the root causes of terrorism. We need to learn why violent minds choose this method of expression.
Wiretapping is no doubt responsible for many FBI victories against subversive groups and individuals. However, allowing the bureau expanded authority to install wiretaps on the phone lines of suspected terrorists opens the door for the abuse of power. Who or what defines a suspect? The vagueness of such a statute would leave too much room for interpretation and could threaten innocent citizens’ rights to privacy. Taggants, which supporters claim would allow investigators to trace explosive material through the various phases of production and distribution, would also likely prove ineffective. Many bombs are homemade — the bomb in Oklahoma City was composed of fertilizer and fuel oil — and would lack the identifying taggants. FBI requests for more funding are disheartening as well. Is the bureau really in need of financial help or is it merely capitalizing on national nightmares?
The process of searching out terrorists must be akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack, with the smallest of clues often developing into the biggest of leads. Although it’s understandable that the government doesn’t want terrorism to go unpunished, the president’s proposals smell of a witch-hunt. We sympathize with the families of those affected by the recent attacks. But just as the Olympic spirit prevailed in Atlanta, so must personal freedoms prevail across the country. In a democratic nation like ours, it does not make sense to cultivate a fortress mentality built on fear and intense nationalism. Expansion of the anti-terrorism laws, we believe, will do just that.