What to Do About Terrorism

Commentary by Pete du Pont

How serious is the threat of terrorism in North America? Some argue that the menace of random political violence is so great that we should "Israelize" America. But this may sacrifice essential liberties on the altar of public security.

Absolute security, of course, is unattainable. And, judging by the data, the headlines greatly exaggerate the actual risks from terrorism. According to the FBI, we average 15 terrorist incidents per year in the United States, mostly detonated and undetonated bombs. Considering all the political wackos and fanatics out there, we are very fortunate the toll is not higher. The U.S. Department of State reports that 42 Americans have been killed and another 115 wounded per year since 1982 as the result of international terrorism. The big toll was the Libyan bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. By comparison, 900 Americans drown each year in their own bathtubs or swimming pools.

Not that we should dismiss terrorism as inconsequential; 42 deaths each year is too many. And it could get worse. Terrorists increasingly have access to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The Tokyo subway episode illustrates the potential for mass murder in our cities. We cannot rely on the fact that terrorism is mostly self-limiting because it generally proves to be a poor means to achieve political ends.

If all terrorism could be prevented at zero cost, it would pay to prevent all acts of terrorism. We would live in a paradise of perfect security. But counter terrorist measures can be expensive. Following the still-unexplained crash of TWA flight 800, the White House imposed new airline security measures that delay the typical air traveler about 10 minutes. Doesn't sound like much, but if each passenger values his or her time at only $15 an hour, it adds up to a whopping $11 billion annual cost. That's a steep price tag for dubious benefits.

The big threat comes from state-sponsored terrorism. Technology -- metal detectors and street barriers and the like -- may control some risks at acceptable cost, but it's still easy to poison, gas or blow something up. Shifting around who become the innocent victims should not to be confused with deterrence. Real deterrence, and hence prevention, stems from the political courage to use American power. Rightful defense calls for the use of power against terrorists and their nations. Talk, pointless economic costs, showy legislation and counter-terrorism summits typically have substituted for meaningful action.

The White House benefits by "doing something," effective or not, passive or not, expensive or not. In fact, Bill Clinton's been on a political roll ever since the Oklahoma City tragedy. What does rational anti-terrorism policy look like?

By and large, economic sanctions and legislation granting broader police powers and stiffer sentences are understandable reactions, but they inevitably prove ineffective or counterproductive, as well as destructive of liberty. The government already has the responsibility and the power to deal with terrorists, which it has failed to exercise very effectively. As Thomas Jefferson said, the execution of the laws is far more important than the laws themselves.

Terrorists are feted at the White House and even awarded Nobel Peace prizes. The two Libyans who brought down Pan Am 103 live comfortably in Libya. Aldrich Ames' life is spared and no one cleans house at the CIA. As novelist and Dole speech writer Mark Helprin says, "Terrorists know the world is safe for them, and they have a good chance of success and even honor."

Rational policy pays attention to effectiveness and cost and does not shrink from appropriate use of force. It's mostly common sense, not rocket science. The message to terrorists has got to be, in the immortal words of Lt. Harry Callahan, "Go ahead, make my day."

International terrorists must be given no quarter. Hunt 'em down. Their sponsoring governments are responsible for their behavior and should get no quarter either. A responsible U.S. government must fulfill its basic defense function. That means that terrorism must not pay. And that means we'll have a lot less of it.