Among the casualties: 'the illusion of invincibility' Americans may face an erosion of immunity from terrorist acts

February 28, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer Staff writer Ian Johnson contributed to this story.

In the echo of the blast beneath New York's World Trad Center Friday resounded a simple question with an unsettling answer:

Given the high political profile of the United States and the open nature of this society, why are there not more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil?

"It's a question I've asked for a long time," Robert H. Kupperman, a specialist on national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said yesterday. "I guess the terrorists and their sponsors have been fearful of taking us on."

That is why the stakes are high in the New York bombing, if it is confirmed definitively to have been a terrorist attack, as most specialists expect, Dr. Kupperman said.

The high profile of the target, the scale of the blast and the storm of publicity may already have eroded the psychological shield of the U.S. against the psychological weapon of terrorism.

"What upsets me about this," Dr. Kupperman said, "is we may have lost the illusion of invincibility."

Terrorism, a word that traces its roots to the political terror of the French revolution, is aimed at creating terror. In the dramatic television footage of hundreds of dazed, weeping, choking office workers stumbling from one of the country's most famous workplaces, the explosion may have planted an enduring image of fear and helplessness, some experts said yesterday.

Even in New York, where the five deaths are dwarfed by the number of murders in any week, the violence is far more devastating to public confidence than the numbing background of street crime.

"The point of using a bomb is, number one, the psychological terror it causes," said Thomas V. Flores, director of investigations for Corporate Response Group, a Washington-based consulting firm. "This is a me dia statement that, 'We have the power to strike anywhere in this country.' "

"Certainly it will change American perceptions," said Brian M. Jenkins, a top U.S. expert on terrorism who is with international consulting firm Kroll Associates. "Any presumption we've had of immunity will be wiped out. It can happen here."

Historically, as has been the case with nearly all warfare in this century, American soil -- though not American lives -- has largely been spared by terrorism.

The State Department recorded 362 "international terrorist incidents" last year outside the United States, said Mayer Nudell, executive director of the International Association of Counterterrorism and Security Professionals. But 142, or 40 percent, of those attacks were classified as "anti-U.S.," targeting American citizens or American facilities in foreign countries.

Using a somewhat different definition, the FBI counted five "terrorist incidents" in the United States in 1991, the last year for which statistics are available, Mr. Nudell said. No one was killed or injured.

The last time this many Americans were killed in a terrorist attack in the United States was nearly two decades ago in 1975, when 14 people were killed and 70 injured by a bomb planted by Croatian terrorists in a luggage locker at New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Even following the U.S. bombing of Libya in 1986 and during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, there were no terrorist bombings on U.S. soil, despite explicit threats in each case from Libyan and Iraqi leaders.

Authorities list a number of reasons why U.S. territory has been spared:

* The FBI and CIA together have a strong reputation for tracking the source of a terrorist attack, and the United States in recent years has sometimes retaliated. "The protective intelligence services in this country are really very, very good," said Noel Matchett, a Silver Spring security consultant formerly with the National Security Agency.

* American society offers broad opportunities for protest and dissent, so that most dissent is expressed by Americans and foreigners in nonviolent ways. "That's not the case in the Central and South American countries that have the most bombings," said Joseph R. Rosetti, vice-chairman of Kroll Associates.

* American embassies, airlines, businesses and tourists abroad offer ample targets that are more accessible to foreign terrorists and where they are less likely to be caught.

Anti-American terrorists seem to have calculated in the past that to attract attention and send a message, a hit on American

facilities abroad is adequate and does not risk all-out U.S. retaliation.

"There's been a theory that if they do attack the U.S. proper, the Americans will bring resources to bear around the world and make it harder to operate everywhere," Mr. Flores said.

If the New York attack is indeed pinned on foreign terrorists, American attitudes will change -- for as long as the memory of the New York news film remains vivid, Dr. Kupperman said. "America goes from apathy to paranoia to apathy," he said.

The danger of the paranoia phase, several specialists said, is that other potential terrorists will sense their power over American lives and be tempted to mimic the World Trade Center attack.

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