Posted on August 05, 1996 in Washington Watch

The threat and reality of terrorism competed with the Olympics for America’s attention this past week.

The unsolved bombing of the U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia, and the tragic and still suspicious downing of TWA Flight 800, were disturbing enough. But when a bomb exploded in the midst of the Olympic festival, a public frenzy followed. Even after the World Trade Center bombing and that of the Oklahoma City federal building terrorism remained an abstract and remote possibility for most Americans, not a reality to be faced in everyday life.

The events of the past month have changed all that. How this new focus on the problem of terrorism will further transform daily life remains to be seen, but already commentators have noted a significant impact.

Even before the Olympic bombing, the security regime in Atlanta was unprecedented. For a society based on individual liberties, the acceptance of so much security was itself remarkable. The presence of thousands of uniformed and non-uniformed local, state, federal and special law enforcement officers – coupled with roving surveillance cameras, metal detectors and package searches – are practices that would never have been accepted by Americans two decades ago.

Security measures that are commonplace in other countries are now also viewed as necessary, and even normal, in America as well. A poll taken after the Olympic bombing showed that Americans accept these intrusions into their privacy and limits on their freedoms as important safeguards against threats to their security. So it is not surprising that in the aftermath of the Olympic bombing, President Clinton immediately convened a bipartisan panel of Congressional leaders to discuss legislative proposals to give still greater powers to law enforcement agencies.

Many of the new powers sought had been rejected a few months ago when Congress passed an anti-terrorism bill. A coalition of liberals and libertarian conservatives defeated a number of the President’s original proposals which they viewed as granting too much power to the government to invade privacy. The White House now feels that, given the public mood so close to the election, Congress may be forced to reconsider.

Included among the President’s proposals are:

· expansion of federal wiretapping authority and looser standards for obtaining wiretaps;
· substantially increased funding for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) counter-terrorism efforts;
· extension of statute of limitations for terrorism-related crimes;
· requiring chemical producers to mix tagging agents (“taggants”) in their products so that the source of explosives used in a terrorist bomb can be more easily identified and traced; and
· allowing the use of hotel and telephone records in investigations of suspected terrorists.

The President will most certainly not get all of these proposals passed into law. Already the coalition that worked against earlier efforts to pass these provisions has begun to lobby, and members of the Congressional leadership panel convened by the President have cautioned against moving too quickly as if in a panic.

But in an election year, given the public’s concern with terrorism, Congress will at least make an effort to pass some of these proposals before November. Republican legislators, already reeling from accusations that some in their ranks have ties with the far-right militia movement, will certainly not want the White House to accuse them of being weak on the issue of fighting terrorism.

The President has received praise, even from his opponents, for how he has handled the tragedies of the past two weeks. He assumed a strong position of leadership in the face of several national tragedies and, in each instance, put a distinctive Clinton stamp on his response.

At first the President avoided becoming directly involved in the TWA crisis. Not wanting to politicize the situation, Clinton left the spotlight to New York’s Republican Governor and Senator and the Mayor of New York City, since that is where the crash had occurred. Only when the families of the victims complained about his absence and about misleading comments made by New York’s Governor did the President decide to intervene. His private meeting with the families of the victims was widely praised. Even New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato, a harsh critic of Clinton who had chaired the investigation into the Whitewater affair, said of Clinton: “He demonstrated care, concern and compassion. ...He should be commended for coming here.”

And while many disagreements still remain about Clinton’s anti-terrorism proposals, his approach to this crisis and his convening of a bipartisan panel to discuss solutions to terrorism were well-received by supporters and opponents alike.

In a two-week period when it was assumed that Americans would be focused on the Olympic games, it was also assumed that neither Clinton nor Dole would find space for publicity, but events have proven the latter assumption to be wrong. During all this time the President’s Republican challenger Bob Dole was literally invisible. One commentator noted that it was as if “Dole disappeared into a black hole.”

A record-setting 40% of Americans have in fact watched the Olympics, but terrorism became mixed in with the games and political leadership was required to restore public confidence. Apparently, the President succeeded. When asked in a recent poll who they felt would do a better job dealing with terrorism, Clinton easily won over Dole – a somewhat surprising result considering Dole’s strong military background and the normal identification of Republicans with defense and security matters.

One final note: in all of this media and public frenzy over acts of terror, it is significant that there has been little serious mention of Arabs or Muslims. While it is true that there have been some isolated articles and comments in the electronic media, they have not added up and have been largely dismissed in serious public discourse.

From President Clinton on down, there were strong and repeated warnings to Americans not to rush to judgment. The media was reminded of the Oklahoma City debacle. And apparently the warnings had an impact. Even when the Munich tragedy of 1972 was mentioned at the opening of the Olympics (and it was logical that it would be mentioned for many reasons), it was listed as a historic incident – not as an accusation.

We may not yet be free from the immediate identification of Arabs and Muslims with terrorist acts; but if the past few weeks are any indication, the danger may be receding.

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