The World is Watching Oklahoma City

April 25, 1995|By DOUG STRUCK

JERUSALEM — Jerusalem. -- The bombing at Oklahoma City will cause much hand-wringing about what is wrong with American society. If the lesson is that political intolerance and hatred soaked in sanctimony are dangerous to democracy, so much the better.

But from overseas, permit a small pat of encouragement to intrude on the gloomy introspection. Viewed from here, the way the United States handled the tragedy reflected well -- one might be tempted to say proudly -- on America.

There were some slips. But officials mostly resisted the rush to lay blame blindly. They followed the evidence, not the political winds. Professionally and competently, they demonstrated that such crimes can be solved without discarding individual rights.

This serves as a pretty good example for other countries. Much of the world has been riveted on the Oklahoma bombing, thanks partly to satellite television dishes that have sprouted from the Arctic to Iran.

Some have watched the story sympathetically, and some gloatingly to see if the world's superpower would stumble. Consciously or not, other countries may measure their own performance in such tragedies with America's, and come up wanting.

In the Middle East and elsewhere where terrorist acts are a routine currency of politics, bombings often provoke a quite different response.

The first reaction to a major attack is to name a probable culprit -- usually a whole group is condemned, not simply an individual. Politicians beat their chests and declare the suspect parties a threat to the fabric of the society. Evidence is often scant or smelly.

Then arrests are ordered: mass roundups of what Claude Raines fliply but accurately called the ''usual suspects.'' The arrests often are accompanied by other crackdowns on civil liberties.

''In Italy, it's unfortunate but we have something like this every one or two years. There's always big chaos. The investigation immediately becomes a political tool,'' said an Italian journalist. ''There's never a straight line.''

Here in Israel, terrorist attacks always produce bitter name-calling and accusations among the political parties about whether the government is ''tough enough.'' Rarely is a plaintive voice raised about whether the inevitable crackdown is likely to hurt innocent persons.

Equally rare is an arrest and fair trial, such as the world will now see in America. Suspected terrorists here usually are killed in a clash with the government and posthumously declared guilty.

Granted, these comparisons are a bit unfair. The United States is a large, stable country with an established legal system, and usually is untroubled by armed guerrillas seeking to overthrow the government. And the United States has in the past trampled individual rights in the face of a perceived threat -- the Japanese interment in World War II is a painful example.

Even in the Oklahoma case there have been some tarnished moments. President Clinton often said the right thing. But he slipped into bombast when he guaranteed an arrest before he knew it was possible and when he promised maximum punishment of suspects, a domain constitutionally out of his reach.

Much of the American media was all too eager to pick up and run with any hints of a Middle East connection. Such speculation even allowed the right-wing Jerusalem Post -- which normally considers ''Arab terror'' virtually one word -- to sniff condescendingly about ''anti-Muslim hysteria'' by a ''media lynch mob.''

But as the case continues and as politicians begin to get revved up over what to do about terrorism, Americans should be aware the world is watching them. So far, it has been a commendable show.

Doug Struck is chief of the Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun.

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