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Terrorism and the rule of law

The international community must make every effort to curb terrorism - acts of violence perpetrated by dissident groups as well as terrorist incidents undertaken by governments.

At the same time, it is vital that the fight against terrorism be waged in a way that does not compromise the moral and legal standards of the Western world in general.

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Action against terrorism need not be supine. Force may be justified when perpetrators are identified. But the Western world must not abrogate its high standard of law and justice and instead resort to the violent, illegal, and reprehensible policies of terrorist groups.

Terrorism has come to the forefront of attention once again over three separate issues:

* In Italy, authorities have charged three Bulgarians and five Turks with taking part in an alleged assassination plot against Pope John Paul II in 1981. One issue expected to be raised in trial proceedings will be the role, if any, of the Bulgarian government. Many people have assumed, fairly or not, that if Bulgaria is involved, then so too must be the Soviet Union, since Bulgaria is one of Moscow's most loyal allies. But whether such a linkage exists is undetermined. The Italian authorities are to be commended for pursuing the case - as they are for stepping up arrests of organized-crime figures for what might produce a series of dramatic trials.

* In Poland, inquiries continue into the abduction of an outspoken pro-Solidarity priest.

* In the United States, Secretary of State George Shultz argued late last week that force should be used by the US against terrorist groups. ''We may never have the kind of evidence that can stand up in an American court of law,'' Mr. Shultz said. ''But we cannot allow ourselves to become the Hamlet of nations , worrying endlessly over whether and how to respond.''

The ironies in Secretary Shultz's remarks on terrorism are self-evident - coming against the backdrop of legal steps in Italy involving the assassination attempt against the Pope and the crackdown on organized crime. Secretary Shultz is correct in wanting the US to take firm action against terrorism. But surely, that should not require the US to abrogate its own standards of law and justice.

President Reagan spoke to that point in his second television debate when he argued that the US would not strike at terrorists unless they were clearly identified. ''We are not going to hit people to say, 'Oh look - we got even,' '' Mr. Reagan said. ''We want to know, when we retaliate, that we're retaliating with those who are responsible for the terrorist acts.''

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For the short run, the US must tighten security. The Senate Intelligence Committee lays blame for the September US Embassy bombing in Lebanon to the ''tragically simple mistake'' of not closing off an access road.

In the long run, the US - and the world community in general - must continue to observe the rule of law in its dealings with perpetrators of violence. In that reliance is to be found the world's ultimate safety.

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