- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Overcoming terrorism is more a problem of psychology than of law or power. It is more a matter of attitude than means. Unless we recognize those forces within our control that sap our will to win, we can never expect to succeed.

That was the conclusion of a report issued on May 15, 1990, by the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism. Established as a result of pressure on the first Bush administration by the families of the Pan Am 103 bombing of Dec. 21, 1988, the commission cited "national will and moral courage" as "the ultimate means for defeating terrorism."

In no uncertain terms, it said the battle must be taken to the enemy's side. "Moral courage" was a euphemism for not allowing states like Iran, which had been implicated in terrorism, to go untouched because of geopolitical or economic considerations. Instead, it urged "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." Finally, it warned that "rhetoric is no substitute for strong effective action."

Yet, despite the report's call for effective action, rhetoric became its substitute. We did little, and paid an awful price: the horror of September 11.

Why did we not act?

President Bush gave us the best clue in a little noted speech in Atlanta on Nov. 8: "We refuse," he said, "to be in a state of denial." Undoubtedly denial played a critical role. But denial about what? And, are we out of denial? The president didn't elaborate.

Here is a scorecard intended to fill in the gaps.

The points of denial:

(1) That our airports and mass transportation systems had become dangerously vulnerable.

(2) That a national policy for combating terrorism was largely nonexistent.

(3) That our criminal justice system was and remains a poor tool for combating terrorism.

(4) That development, or the enhancement of economic opportunity, provides relatively little to offset the lure of terrorism.

(5) That meaningful long-term steps toward eradicating terrorism cannot be undertaken without realignment of the educational system throughout the militant Islamic world.

Out of denial?

Sigmund Freud in his famous postulation on denial in "The Psycho-Neurosis of Defense" (1894) diagnosed it as a state where one has given permission to allow one part of the brain to trick the other into minimizing the danger that it seeks to avoid having to confront.

Here is the scorecard on which part did the tricking.

(1) The airline industry in obstructing rather than aiding many security measures that potentially would have crimped profits. Only now in the aftermath of September 11 are we taking steps to ensure that our airports are as safe as Europe's (as of September 1, nearly 100 percent of major European airports provided scanning or other measures for detecting explosives of checked-in baggage; only 10 percent of American airports did so).

(2) The State Department has always prided itself on its capacity to smooth international relations. Although a virtue in itself, when taken to an extreme the urge for smooth relations can lead to vested interests in favor of, for example, inaction against Iran for its support of terrorism. Today President Bush's summons to moral courage to confront "an axis of evil" still encounters pockets of resistance.

(3) Various U.S. government agencies viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility the prospect of civil damage claims against foreign governments complicitous, through financial transfers or other means of support, in anti-American terrorist attacks. Increasingly, however, those agencies are recognizing that such civil damage claims as the one currently pending against the government of Libya on behalf of the Pan Am 103 families deserve to be recognized as another important weapon in our anti-terrorism arsenal.

(4) Development, as touted by various governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations, has been shown, though important, to play only a relatively modest role in any anti-terrorism strategy (none of the World Trade Center bombers came from economically deprived backgrounds).

(5) American leadership is only now confronting the fact that education in most of the Muslim world supports the idea of the "good terrorist" a concept President Bush denounced in his last address before the United Nations General Assembly. And, as he stated in his recent State of the Union message, education in the Muslim world is important to us in the war against terrorism.

Clearly, under the leadership of President Bush, we are witnessing a harnessing of the "national will and moral courage" that the 1990 report of the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism demanded. The tragedy is that it took a decade and more than 3,000 lives to bring us to our senses.


Allan Gerson is research professor of international affairs at George Washington University and coauthor of "The Price of Terror: Lessons From Lockerbie for a World on the Brink."


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