Terror under Paris

July 29, 1995

The trouble plaguing the investigation into the terrorist bombing of a commuter train under the River Seine in Paris on Tuesday is that there are too many suspects.

France in recent decades has witnessed terrorism against Armenians, Jews, Iranian dissidents, Turkish dissidents, Syrian dissidents, leading French industrialists and France itself. Suspects have included Hezbollah, several governments, French anarchists. The most recent terrorism has been by Algerian extremists, some of it against each other. The Algerian war is taking place in France, with the French government a shadowy participant. Two French secessionist movements have committed violence in home areas of Corsica and the Basque country.

The new government of President Jacques Chirac has affronted Bosnian Serb forces, and opponents of nuclear proliferation. Its predecessor succeeded in tricking into capture the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Long before the atrocity that killed at least seven commuter train passengers and injured 84, Paris police had a reputation for brusque treatment of North African young men in central Paris Metro stations as though they might be up to something similar.

So there is no point in speculating who might have planted the bomb for what motive or whose past behavior suggests capability. What the French government needs to know -- very rapidly to reassure the French people and prevent crackdowns on innocents -- is who actually did do it. Probably and maybe and could-have don't count.

Most terrorism is done for publicity for a cause. It fails if the terrorized cannot identify the perpetrators. Hence French police received a slew of telephoned confessions immediately after the atrocity. False boasts. The following days were punctuated by bomb hoaxes throughout France, with attendant disruption of commerce and life. Hence the $200,000 reward for accurate information.

France is not alone. A list of people with some grievance against Japan would produce many, but the fatal gassing of Japanese in a subway was the work of a native group that considers itself spiritual. Immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing, many Americans suspected Arab Muslim extremist terrorists of the sort charged with the World Trade Center bombing in New York. The charges against Americans nurtured by a movement arming to fight their own government surprised many.

Terrorists have never brought down a strong, self-confident, civil society. But that's not for want of trying.

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