- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2001

Winston Churchill called World War II the "stupidest" war in history. No war, he said, was more clearly foreseeable or preventable. Future historians are likely to say the same about the Terrorism War which the United States entered on Oct. 7, 2001, after more than two decades of watching from the sidelines even as it was victimized.

Some still debate whether it was foreseeable. For the families of the victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, there never was any doubt. They shouted to the heavens and to anyone that would hear that what happened to them was not a freak occurrence, but one waiting to happen again to others, perhaps on a still vaster scale. And they took steps to try to prevent it. It is not too late to absorb the lessons they sought to teach.

(1) Fighting international terrorism is more about national will and moral courage than it is about any specific preventive measures.

Once the families of the Pan Am 103 victims 270 individuals, predominantly Americans overcame discombobulation and numbing grief, they moved to confront what was then the greatest mass murder of American civilians in history. Overcoming the initial objections of President George Bush, Secretary of State James Baker III, Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner and Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, they marshaled enough congressional support to force the creation of a national Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism.

The recommendations of that commission, issued on May 15, 1990, remain pertinent to the challenge our nation faces today. "National will and the moral courage to exercise it are," it concluded, "the ultimate means of defeating terrorism." Accordingly, it recommended in addition to a number of specific aviation security measures, "a more vigorous U.S. policy that not only pursues and punishes terrorists but also makes state sponsors of terrorism pay a price for their actions. These more vigorous policies should include planning and training for pre-emptive or retaliatory military strikes against known terrorist enclaves in nations that harbor them. Where such direct strikes are inappropriate, the commission recommends a lesser option, including covert operations, to prevent, disrupt or respond to terrorist attacks."

But "national will and the moral courage to exercise it" gave way to willful disbelief of America's vulnerability and a calculation that isolated incidents of anti-American terrorism could be treated as acceptable risks. The alternative which would have required taking on directly Middle East governments with whom we wished to foster good relations seemed more formidable than a frontal assault on terrorism. It would be charitable to say strategic considerations trumped moral concerns, but in fact neither master was served.

To be sure, our rhetoric was strong. At the fifth anniversary of the downing of Pan Am 103, a cairn, or memorial marker, was established for the victims at Arlington National Cemetery. President Bill Clinton spoke, and he condemned the bombing as "an attack against America." Those very words are engraved at the base of the monument which was erected at Arlington precisely because the bombing of Pan Am 103 was perceived as an attack on America. But though the family members cheered his words, few expected that Mr. Clinton, any more than Mr. Bush before him, would choose to match words with deeds.

Instead of pre-emptive or retaliatory military strikes which, at the least, would have kept terrorists on the run, we pursued them in courts of law. And while that effort was buttressed by a strong-minded policy of economic sanctions, it was nevertheless a criminal law approach that predominated. The result after more than a decade of effort to hold those responsible for planting the bomb legally accountable is the conviction of one Libyan operative, by a Scottish tribunal sitting in the Netherlands. And with the good help of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz that conviction is now being appealed. International sanctions have been lifted, leaving the United States alone to continue enforcement of sanctions. All in all, hardly a vigorous response meant to striker fear into the hearts of terrorists and the governments that give them shelter and support.

Today, spurred by the infamy of Sept. 11, our national will has been roused. It must also be coupled with moral courage to respond to terrorism directed from whatever quarter, whether the state sponsoring such activity is small or large, geopolitically significant or of relatively little importance to U.S. foreign policy interests. To be sure, considerations of prudence have their place, but by definition the war against terrorism permits no exceptions.

(2) Beware of wounded bears. The April 1986 air strikes against Libya in response to the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin frequented by American servicemen was the high point of the American military response to terrorism. Secretary of State George Shultz, asked what message he had intended to send to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, replied curtly: "You've had it, pal." That phrased was played on television and caught the headlines, and Mr. Shultz may well have thought the headaches with Libya were behind him.

But Libyan-sponsored anti-American terrorism didn't stop after the American bombing; it merely shifted to "front companies and other organizations to hide Libya's hand," according to a 1991 State Department report titled "Libya's Continuing Support for Terrorism". The report charged that "the Libyans sponsored a series of anti-U.S. operations immediately after the U.S. air strikes in April 1986. Tripoli was responsible for the shooting of a U.S. Embassy communicator in Sudan. Two Libyans were apprehended on 18 April 1986 as they attempted to attack the U.S. Officers Club in Ankara with grenades. The Libyans confessed that they were ordered to cause the maximum number of casualties, particularly women and children."

Thus when Libya surfaced in the Pan Am investigation, few American counterterrorism experts were surprised. And although there was talk of not having seen much of Col. Gadhafi since the bombing, 21/2 years after Ronald. Reagan ordered the air strikes against Libyan cities of Benghazi and Tripoli, in which more than 40 civilians were killed, the U.S. Justice Department would file criminal indictments against two of Col. Gadhafi's intelligence agents accused of putting the bomb aboard Pan Am 103.

On Oct. 13, 2000, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger appeared on CNN's "Crossfire" to defend President Clinton's use of cruise missiles against the bases of Osama bin Laden. He had, he said, been put in his box. But like Libya, in 1986, he was in fact a wounded bear waiting to strike.

(3) Empower individuals to seek justice while the government focuses on military and criminal measures.

With no prospect of a military response, and not much likelihood that a criminal investigation would reach the Libyan leaders who ordered the attack, the families of Pan Am flight 103 forged a remedy of their own: a civil cause of action in U.S. courts intended to make governments encouraging or sponsoring terrorism pay for their crimes.

They knew form the experience of the O.J. Simpson trial of the inherent difficulties of winning a criminal conviction. Instead, they fought to amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which was interpreted to bar civil suits against state sponsors of terrorism. Their own government opposed them in this effort, filing briefs in opposition in the U.S. Supreme Court and opposing legislative revision. But the families prevailed and secured adoption of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act, which includes a right of civil actions against those states specifically listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism.

Soon the shock and helplessness which grips the families of the latest American victims of international terrorism will give way to anger. It is unclear what the full range of states might be that lent support to those responsible for the infamy of Sept. 11. But, whoever they might be, let the wrath of the families of the victims find expression in the quest for justice in U.S. courts. The interests of justice and diplomacy need never be at loggerheads; what cannot be done in the public arena should not prevent the empowerment of individuals, families of the victims of the most heinous crimes, from holding the perpetrators and their government supporters accountable in courts of law.

Waging a successful campaign against international terrorism will require all of these elements. Surely, it is not too late for the voice of the Pan Am 103 families to finally give meaning to the death of their loved ones.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide