Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Alistair Cooke after Lockerbie

This is from the Letter From America of 15th March 1996, and has some pertinent things to say about responses to terrorist acts. The reference to the World Trade Center of course comes before the devastating attacks by air five years later.

About the Scottish obscenity, the one certain thing I think we can say, which I admit offers bleak comfort to the parents and friends, is that absolutely nothing can be done about such sporadic horrors which are happening all across the globe. They always did, but to know about them you had to take a daily paper interested in news from China, Siberia, Tibet, Chile, France, Germany, wherever, and dig the lurid item out of the inner pages and the fine print.
One of the many burdens television has loaded us with, is the certainty that every multiple crime, massive accident, big fire, small assassination, can be known about, can be seen that same day, by everyone alive with a television set. What I'm saying is that there's no way of taking precautions against the sudden brainstorm of a man with a gun, anywhere on earth. No magic formula, no psychiatrist, no detective, no witch doctor. The Romans thought they had portents of trouble to come. They didn't, and nobody has had since, except frivolous astrologers who pretend to.
But about terrorism organised, certainly this country's pretty steamed up after the appalling bombing of the World Trade Centre in this city and the more recent explosion of Oklahoma City's federal building. By the way, one of the conspirators in the World Trade Centre disaster is said to have been foiled in a plan, carefully worked out, to explode eight or nine American commercial air flights on the same day. Last summer the United States Senate passed what it called a Terrorism Protection Act. It increased the staff of the FBI and loosened the law that made tracing explosive devices an invasion of privacy.
But there've been lots of objections and there will be more to other parts of the act that give more power to the police and in some emergencies, the military, to trail suspects and to keep a closer watch on aliens, which is quite an undertaking when you consider that about 400,000 aliens, legal and illegal, pour into this country every week. The objections will be, as always, based on two phrases in the First Amendment to the Constitution: Freedom of speech and the right of the people peaceably to assemble. That last right can cover a multitude of gatherings.
As we learned in the heyday of the gangster era – I mean when gangsters were recognisable on the street and in nightclubs, not as now, well-groomed members of the Mafia who deny there is such a thing as the Mafia and who, when arrested in a meeting of their brethren or family, can always protest the invasion of the police, the FBI or whoever, into an innocent get-together of Friday night chums or a business meeting, involved entirely in making better and cheaper doughnuts or mousetraps or whatever business they pretend to be in. And you can see also how trigger-happy cops could intrude on any meeting of the newly arrived or old arrived aliens, under suspicion of being spies or nowadays, terrorists. Since the Oklahoma City bombing, the Islamic population of that state has been intimidated and in some places, bullied. Not because they took any part in the plot, but because, after the arrest of the Islamic suspects in the New York World Centre bombing, all members of an Islamic sect even the most decent and law-abiding families, lived, moved and worked under a cloud of suspicion.
Now assuming, which is a mighty, a miraculous assumption, that both houses of Congress will come to devise and agree on an effective bill to combat terrorism, there will remain the most American of stumbling blocks: the admirable concern for the liberty of the subject and the hysterical interpretation of the First Amendment by well-meaning groups that believe every child is innocent of swiping anything from the kitchen until they see the jam smeared on his face. Or, as one newspaper here put it, Congress is right to give federal law enforcement agencies more money and manpower but diminishing American liberties is not the solution to terrorism. What the solution can be, while still preserving everyone's right to say anything on his or her mind and to gather for innocent or villainous purposes, what the solution might be, it does not say.

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