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Act of Terror and an Act of War

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Notwithstanding media headlines and President Clinton, who called the bombing of USS Cole an act of terror, what happened on Thursday in Aden to a U.S. Navy destroyer was not a terrorist act; it was an act of war. Terrorism is the killing of innocent civilians for a host of possible reasons. Soldiers and sailors going about their business and following lawful orders are innocent as individuals, but this is no guarantor, legally or morally, of safety.

Insofar as they are an instrument of a nation's defenses, they are vulnerable to enemy attack, and the vulnerability goes with the job. Most of the men and women in the U.S. military understand this fact.

The difference between an act of terror and an act of war is important. Over the past three decades the United States and other democratic states where the rule of law reigns, have developed legal, evidentiary and procedural standards for defining and responding to terrorism. They swing into effect reflexively now. FBI anti-terrorist investigators were dispatched to Aden within hours of the attack on the USS Cole. Unfortunately, suicide bombers and other malefactors understand the exacting legal standards that we have built to our own specifications. And they hide behind these.

The result is that justice, if any, comes very slowly. The accused in what was indeed an act of terror, the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, are now being tried 11 years after the fact. Perhaps a decade from now, there will be a trial for those who ordered the suicide bombing against the Cole.

But justice is only marginally the issue when an American warship is attacked. An attack on a Navy ship is an attack against the United States. It is an act of war. And, as an act of war, it demands appropriate military response. We may not be able to do so because as in this case, it may not be clear immediately who is responsible. But American presidents should be careful in their public distinctions. Terrorism kills and threatens civilians in their person. Acts of war threaten the collective body, in this case, the United States. Those who commit acts of war against the United States need to understand that there will be a military response less discriminate and less punctilious than what is called for by the crime of terror. Failing to make this vital distinction diminishes the respect of others as well as our own self-respect.




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