Security patrols are riding Moscow’s buses and subways to check for bombs. French police wary of Algerian terrorists routinely stop dark-skinned citizens for searches and identity checks.
Armed guards are a common sight in Colombian shops, offices, even restaurants. In Israel, mailed packages arrive with stickers warning the recipient to call police if he or she has the slightest suspicion about what may be inside.
It is, in short, a security-conscious world. With every new terrorist outrage - the Oklahoma City bombing, possibly the crash of TWA Flight 800 and Saturday’s fatal explosion at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park - America seems to be heading in that direction.
“We have always lived with the illusion in this country that terrorism is something that happens to other people,” said Tony Cooper, an expert on terrorism at the University of Texas at Dallas. “That had no relationship with reality.”
If that illusion persists, it was shaken again by the crude bomb that rocked Atlanta and reverberated around the world. Again, the questions are raised: How safe are we? And even with the best security precautions, how safe can we be?
U.S. security consultants have predicted public pressure will force greater restrictions in public places and increased scrutiny at airports.
Travelers say they will accept longer delays for better baggage checks, and politicians have reopened debate over thorny provisions cut from an anti-terrorism bill. But others note that security was tight at the Olympics before the bombing, and they warn that adopting a police-state mentality would represent defeat.
“I don’t want to see the terrorists win by, in effect, revoking our Constitution,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on Fox’s “News Sunday.”
A terrorist can always move on to the next target. If airports are sealed, will train stations be safe? How about movie theaters?
“Ultimately, the question is: Can you protect perfectly in public places?” said Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell. “And the answer is no.”
Other countries that battle terrorism have mixed success.
Israel often is described as a model of security measures, and El Al is regarded as one of the world’s safest airlines. But human rights groups frequently complain of abuses against Palestinians in the name of protecting Israelis.
And Israeli security failed to prevent the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist last November and a wave of attacks by Muslim suicide bombers this year that proved decisive in the May elections.
Europeans who have grappled with waves of terrorism in the last two decades have grown accustomed to a level of security checks and police intrusions that never have been part of daily life in the United States. Nonetheless, terror attacks have persisted.
Despite France’s hunt for terrorists, which has been decried as racist by human rights organizations, Algerians have been able to explode several bombs in Paris and other French cities in the past year.
Bombings also have become commonplace in England - where the Irish Republican Army is targeting business centers - and in Spain, where Basque separatists have launched attacks at beach resorts favored by summer tourists.
To deter airborne terrorism, major European airports in cities such as London and Frankfurt have instituted security procedures that are much more stringent and time-consuming than those in the United States.
At most European airports, passengers individually are searched after walking through metal detectors, carry-on bags routinely are opened and electronic equipment is checked for possible bombs.
In Colombia, guerrillas and criminal gangs frequently bomb oil pipelines in the countryside and kidnap adults and children in cities. Wealthy citizens drive bulletproof cars with armed escorts, while a new luxury condominium complex in northern Bogota comes complete with a “safe room” in every apartment - a secure hiding place where a family can gather if attackers storm the building.
These problems are hardly unknown in the United States. Security precautions at airports, abortion clinics, schools and federal buildings, to name a few, reflect the dangers of modern society.
Abortion rights advocates have reported hundreds of attacks - bombings, arson, even murder - at clinics around the country in the last two decades. The results are security measures ranging from bulletproof glass to concertina wire around the perimeters.
The same concerns have enveloped black churches throughout the South as a result of dozens of arson attacks in the last several years.
“I know that we have increased our security,” said Selmore Haines, director of the Christian Theater Ministry at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas. “There was a time a church was a holy place that everyone revered. The sad fact is that our community and our country does not have the level of respect that it once did.”
Cooper, who was director of the National Advisory Committee Task Force on Disorders and Terrorists in the 1970s, said he believes domestic terrorism is harder to thwart than foreign groups. Authorities suspect that an American is responsible for the Olympics bombing.
“Where you have foreign-sponsored terrorism, you can direct your countermeasures against that government,” he said. But taking tough action against violent fringe elements at home, he said, “is unpalatable, and we’re less accustomed to it. I don’t think any amount of legislation or police powers is really going to guard against this.”
Like many experts on terrorism, Cooper predicts that Americans will have to learn to live with the added inconvenience and extra expense of increased security in more facets of their lives.
At the same time, he says he is pessimistic that all terrorism can be prevented any more than police can stop every robbery and murder.
“Sadly, I think this is part of the overall crime problem in this country,” Cooper said. “We have to ask how much of this can we tolerate without doing some fatal harm to our way of life. I fear we’ve got to tolerate a lot more.”
No matter how much security is in place, he said, terrorists will look for a vulnerable spot. It’s impossible to X-ray every piece of luggage and still meet flight schedules, he said, or screen every person in every public place.
“We have to be realistic,” he said. “The only perfect security is that nobody should wish to harm you.”
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