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Presidents and Terrorism

Lack of justice may be price of being a democratic superpower

IN January 1981, the newly inaugurated President Reagan, welcoming home Americans from 444 days of embassy captivity in Iran, put terrorists on notice "to beware of swift and effective retribution." None of the Iranian hostage holders was ever punished.

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In April 1983, the American embassy in Lebanon was bombed and 16 Americans killed, and in October in the Marine barracks, 241 were killed. Reagan rejected what he called advice "to turn tail and run," but ordered the removal of the remaining Marines to ships offshore. The authors of the two bombings were not apprehended. In October 1985, Reagan appeared in the White House press room to tell terrorists holding six American hostages in Lebanon, "You can run, but you can't hide." None of the hostage holders was captured, and the Reagan administration ended up offering arms to Iran for hostages in Lebanon.

Presidential fist-shaking after an act of terrorism has now become a kind of grim convention. Last Friday, after the Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam bombings, President Clinton was quick to go on television and promise to "use all means to bring those responsible to justice, no matter how long it takes." On the weekend talk shows, that became the approved line for the president's lieutenants, Secretary Albright talking of "America's very long memory and very far reach."

It is hard to see what such hyperbole accomplishes. Presidential aides called attention to the successful apprehension of terrorists, as in the World Trade Center bombing and the killing of two CIA employees outside the agency's Virginia headquarters. But it is obviously easier to crack terrorist incidents on American soil than abroad.

In fact, in the past 20 years no more than a third of terrorists who targeted Americans have been brought to justice. Overseas, the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub in April 1986, in which two GIs were killed, was traced to Libyan sponsorship and Reagan ordered an air strike on Libya. But the perpetrators were not caught.

Two Libyans implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 with a toll of 270, remained inaccessible in Libya, although the Qaddafi government has put out feelers about a possible trial in Europe. In November 1995, 19 American airmen were killed in a bombing in Saudi Arabia. A frustrated FBI says Saudi authorities have not been very helpful in tracking down the perpetrators. To recite the spotty record of capturing terrorists is not to blame the American authorities. It is only to say that most Americans are mature enough to understand the price of being a democratic superpower and do not need to be lulled with promises of retribution that may be hard to keep.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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