The Magazine

America Knows Terrorism

Unlike the simplistic Europeans.

Mar 18, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 26 • By TOD LINDBERG
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AT THE END OF THE DAY, the truest picture of the European response to the war on terror may emerge from, for example, the fact that Germany has dispatched elite special forces troops to fight alongside Americans in Gardez, Afghanistan. That a Social Democratic-Green coalition would send German soldiers abroad to participate in an exercise in "regime change" marks a historic change, one befitting the stakes to which al Qaeda raised international terror on September 11. But it's a long way to the end of the day, and we must therefore be prepared in the meantime to run a gauntlet of other, far more distasteful European responses.

Leaving aside the hard-core anti-American left, whose musings have become the more feral in inverse proportion to their consequence, the central tenet of mainstream obnoxiousness is the proposition that Americans are "simplistic" (French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine) in their approach to the problem of terror, and that what underlies European sophistication is greater European experience of terror. We were hit on our soil only now for the first time, and we are lashing out in response to this sudden sense of our own vulnerability. Europeans, having long known the scourge of terror, are more realistic both in their expectations about managing it and in their ability to live their daily lives despite the ultimately unavoidable threat of it.

Thus Vedrine himself has referred to Europe's failure to appreciate Americans' "dreadful shock that was the discovery by the Americans of vulnerability." Douglas Fraser, political editor of the Sunday Herald, wrote in the September 16 edition of the Scottish newspaper, "Terrorism has been a feature of European life for a generation. . . . Only now is the United States being forced to confront it on the other side of the great psychological divide that had been the Atlantic." Reporting in the Washington Post March 4, Keith B. Richburg noted, "For Europeans, terrorism has long been considered an unfortunate fact of life. France has endured bombing linked to Algerian militants, while Italy suffered under the Red Brigades. Germany experienced a wave of terrorism from the Baader-Meinhof gang in the 1970s, and Greece is still home to the small but deadly November 17 group."

With all due respect to the desire to feel more sophisticated than Americans, the notion of greater European experience of terrorism is based on a highly selective reading of the historical record. Yes, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and the follow-on Red Army Faction, did indeed terrorize West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, during the course of which they killed perhaps 30 to 50 people. The Red Brigades engaged in some high-profile killings and kidnappings, including Prime Minister Aldo Moro and U.S. Gen. James L. Dozier, but the death toll they inflicted was in the single digits. The November 17 group has been responsible for 20 or so deaths (including four U.S. diplomats) and also was responsible for a bus attack in 1987 that injured 17 U.S. servicemen. One does find far larger numbers, well into the thousands of civilian casualties, in the case of Algeria and France, and the violence has continued, including a 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight (the four hijackers died in a rescue) and a 1996 bombing of the Paris subway that killed four and injured 86. And the death toll attributable to the Irish Republican Army since the "Troubles" began in earnest in 1969 stands at about 3,600.

But overall, a perusal of the entries on the U.S. State Department list of "Significant Terrorist Incidents, 1961-2001," from which I have taken some of these figures, yields a rather different target profile from what Europeans seem to be implying. Especially over the past two decades, the targets, when they are not Israeli, are overwhelmingly American: From the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, which killed 242 Americans, to the Berlin discotheque bombing in 1986 (two U.S. servicemen dead), to the downing in 1988 of Pan Am flight 103 (259 dead), to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia (19 dead, more than 500 injured), to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (300 dead, thousands injured), to the 2000 attack in Yemen harbor on the USS Cole (17 sailors dead). Even the attacks that have supposedly heightened European consciousness have often been directed at Americans. And while most terror attacks occurred on U.S. targets abroad, not all did. Let us not forget the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, which left six dead. And, of course, there was the Oklahoma City bombing, where a home-grown terrorist claimed the lives of 168.