Jewish World Review May 4, 2004 / 13 Iyar, 5764

John C. Bersia

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With terror on the rise worldwide, America can't afford to be isolationists | OKLAHOMA CITY — Nearly a decade has passed since unspeakable violence ripped through America's heartland, absconding with this place's innocence about the growing terrorist threat abroad and within the United States.

Peace and tranquility may have returned to the site of the former Murrah Federal Building, but the memories of that terrible moment burn on, especially at nightfall, when the "Field of Empty Chairs" honoring the 168 people who died here illuminates.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial bears mute testimony to a myth that was dispelled in the course of a few seconds - that this nation somehow enjoyed protection against the ravages of catastrophic terrorist attacks.

In the unlikely event that such an attack would come, according to another myth, its perpetrators would hail from other countries, probably in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, when a seemingly innocuous rental vehicle revealed its notorious nature with devastating fury on April 19, 1995, many commentators immediately pointed fingers beyond the nation's borders, unable or unwilling to consider that one of America's own could have orchestrated the truck bombing.

Yet among the tens of thousands of hard-core, active extremists who populate the world's terrorist organizations, many reside in the United States and walk unnoticed among us. If one strips away their distinctive characteristics and examines their broad ambitions, strategies, violent inclinations and zeal, they appear frighteningly similar to groups such as al-Qaida that receive a disproportionate share of attention.

Indeed, a pressing concern in the war against terrorism is that extremists - even those who embrace widely divergent ideologies - find advantages in one another's company. It does not stretch reason to suggest that alliances of convenience could include America's homegrown extremists.

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That prospect should serve as a reminder that the terrorist threat cuts across all locations, nationalities, ethnicities, religions and ideologies. Further, terrorism, which secured its place in human society thousands of years ago, can be controlled but not eliminated. Americans tend to forget that reality, especially when the time span between catastrophic attacks extends into years.

Today, too many Americans have allowed themselves to retreat into the mythical thinking that a repeat of Sept. 11 eludes possibility, that the most perilous days in the war against terrorism have passed into history. Instead, they should think about the dozens of terrorist attacks that the United States and its allies have foiled during the past two-and-a-half years and brace themselves for dozens more to come. Though civilized society may arm itself, strive for vigilance and pray for luck, some attacks inevitably will succeed.

In the face of such relentless behavior, some Americans may feel tempted by isolationism, the idea of withdrawing from foreign obligations in nations such as Iraq, the impulse to de-emphasize the global environment and perhaps even the fanciful notion of striking a deal with terrorists.

Sorry, but the fate of the United States is inextricably linked to the world's in an era of unstoppable and accelerating globalization. The old distinctions between the exclusively foreign and the exclusively domestic no longer mean much. Abandoning troubled areas would only condemn them to expanding instability that ultimately would reach U.S. shores.

In other words, there is no secure shell in which to seek shelter - save in the manipulative schemes of terrorists, who dream of dividing and conquering the rest of us. Such thinking no doubt prompted a recent audiotape, supposedly from Osama bin Laden, that offered European countries a truce if they would stop participating in the "onslaught against Muslims" and "interfering in their affairs." Naturally, Europe rejected the proposal.

No nation can afford to contemplate even a passing flirtation with the myth that terrorists' promises contain meaning and sincerity. From Madrid to New York to Bali to Oklahoma City, terrorists have displayed their ugly, true intentions in a trail of blood, rubble, horror and tears.

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John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is also the special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida. Comment by clicking here.


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