Ordinary People Are Tougher Than Bombers Usually Think

LIVING WITH TERROR

April 30, 1995|By RICHARD O'MARA

Political terrorists are rarely able to bring large populations to a state of general panic, to the utter fear that makes them acquiesce to desperate, democracy-destroying measures.

Ordinary people are usually tougher than terrorists think.

What terrorists succeed at is to create individual human tragedies, and the kind of sadness among survivors that never goes away. What terrorists engender is hot fury that melts down into deep anger.

Eventually, when it is finally understood that everything that can be done against the terrorists is being done, a kind of bitter indifference to them settles in.

But first comes the anger.

It was inevitable following the Oklahoma City bombing that ZTC strident talk show hosts would demand rash action (especially against foreigners, any foreigners), and that some political leaders would call for new powers for law enforcement agencies.

It was just as certain that civil libertarians would raise warnings against shoot-from-the-hip reactions to the Oklahoma attack.

Griffin B. Bell, President Jimmy Carter's attorney general, did that last week on television when he said the long-range effects of such measures as making it easy for the FBI to tap telephones had to be "studied." He was clearly dubious about it.

Having lived in two cities where political terrorism was rife, and having visited a number of others where the same conditions obtained, it became evident to me long ago that terrorism brings out a defensive quality that human beings have in great measure. It is the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances, the skill of building sound lives in dangerous situations.

For many years London was one large field of fire for the Irish Republican Army. The city's monuments, its buildings, its magnificent urban transport networks were among the preferred targets. Using fertilizer bombs, probably much like the Oklahoma City device, the IRA gutted the center of London's financial district; it launched mortar rounds at the prime minister's house at 10 Downing St.

The bomb scares grew so common in London it became the standard excuse for arriving late just about anywhere -- to home, to parties, even for missed professional appointments. People spent long hours in Underground trains stuck between stations while SWAT teams probed another "suspicious parcel" sighted near a ticket window. People adjusted, accepted the inconvenience, got back onto the Tube the next day without complaint. Everything was being done that could be.

Across the Irish Sea, the British army wrapped the center of Belfast in barbed wire and governed access and egress through iron turnstiles. They patrolled the streets in combat gear. Occasionally soldiers were bushwhacked by IRA gunmen; now and then innocent civilians were blown away by trigger-happy Tommies on patrol. But life went on, even up and down the Falls and Shankill roads, where the warring factions plotted heinous acts.

Certainly terrorism does not do much for the quality of life in those places where it exists. But it does sharpen certain skills that can be dulled by the mundane routines of safe living. Wit, for instance: The Irish and the English never had their sense of humor scared out of them.

I visited the small town of Markethill, south of Belfast, the day after it received an IRA bomb. A warning had been sent before the explosion, so only a few sheep, which the shepherd could not persuade off the village green, had been lost. The police station no longer existed, nor the houses adjacent to it. Several young men were shoring up the roof of a badly damaged garage when, in a tone of almost criminal insensitivity, I asked: "How big is Markethill?"

"Not sure," answered one, "but a lot smaller than it was yesterday."

Argentina endured an extended period of terrorism during the 1970s. Political murders were so numerous that mourners would occasionally take in two funerals on the same day, without having to change clothes. People avoided narrow streets, which magnify the concussive effects of bombs. A parcel spotted unattended on a doorstep could empty the block in a minute.

Yet, despite the warfare during those years, the rhythm of social life in Buenos Aires hardly slowed. People went out in the evening to cafes and restaurants in much the same numbers as they had during less explosive times. Like the English and Irish, beset by terrorism, the Argentines resorted to the balm of humor.

Among the more frequent incidents at the time were bank robberies by guerrilla groups after money to finance their operations against "bourgeois society." These were often bloody affairs: Guards would be shot; bank managers humiliated, and invariably terrified customers and tellers would be exposed to harangues in which the thieves justified their thievery on political grounds. Such robberies became so common many didn't even make the papers.

Which was why one bank job was played so prominently. It

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