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Bombs and the Bill of Rights

By Joseph D. McNamara

Wall Street Journal - May 5, 1995

Almost 35 years ago I was the first policeman to reach the scene of a fatal bombing. Someone known as the Sunday Bomber had placed a powerful explosive under a seat in a subway car. The bomb went off on a quiet Sunday Morning in New York City at the West 125th Street station, a block from where I, a rookie patrolman, stood. I ran to the site and at the bottom of the subway stairs found a scene from hell. A huge hole had been torn through the steel subway car and dozens of people stood dazed and bloody. I approached what appeared to be a bundle of rags. It was a teenage girl blown almost in half. I leaned over to hear her feeble plea. 'Help me.' But no one could. She died before reaching the hospital.

It was nowhere near the scale of the Oklahoma City tragedy, but I remember the feeling of helplessness and rage at whoever had planted the bomb and the determination that something extraordinary had to be done to protect other innocent victims. Nevertheless, my experience in law enforcement during the following 35 years leads me to be nauseated and concerned by the political posturing in Washington following the Oklahoma City bombing.

The public needs reassuring that the government will not allow widespread terrorism and that government officials share the public grief for the innocent victims and their families. However, the eagerness of the president and congressional leaders to move in front of TV cameras with hasty proposals for major increases in federal power rings of self-aggrandizement and cheapens the nation's sincere moment of sorrow. The hurried recommendations-to hire more federal agents, to change intelligence-gathering guidelines. to increase wiretap surveillance, and to involve military personnel in investigations or civilians-are hypocritical and potentially harmful.

If our elected leaders truly believe that increased danger of terrorism warrants such extraordinary powers, how do they explain that few federal and government facilities have taken precautions to prevent attacks since the Oklahoma City bombing?. I have inspected a number of facilities since the attack. Security personnel have not been on alert, nor has the government taken the routine precaution of diverting vehicular traffic to prevent car bombings.

We should also remember that Timothy McVeigh, charged in the Oklahoma City bombing, was quickly apprehended without the U.S. passing new laws and spending additional billions of dollars. It is also important to recall that during the 20 Years since reasonable guidelines were established for intelligence gathering by federal agents on citizens, the U.S. has not been overwhelmed by terrorist acts. The FBI can and does gather intelligence on domestic groups when appropriate. Furthermore, despite our horror in viewing the Oklahoma City blast victims, we should remember that more than 25,000 Americans are murdered each year and less than 100 of the killings are by explosives. More important, it is unlikely that any of the suggested anti-terrorist legislation would have prevented the Oklahoma City bombing.

My own experience, which includes heading police forces of two of the nation's largest cities, is that law-enforcement intelligence activities are only occasionally important but require constant oversight. The Militia paranoids are wrong in believing that law-enforcement officers are essentially fascist. Yet there have been countless examples showing that power can be abused by initially well meaning officers given too much secret discretion.

Recall Richard Nixon's involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and near involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Watergate coverup. And. much more recently, there was President Clinton's slip in implying that radio talk-show hosts critical of his administration were encouraging potential bombers.

Would a president view criticism as potentially violent and therefore worthy of secret FBI surveillance under the new legislation?

It would be most wise to temper our revulsion for the killers responsible for the Oklahoma City murders and our sorrow for the victim with the realization that during this century the greatest terrorists have been governments like Nazi Germany. Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia. They murdered millions and millions of their own citizens in the name of providing security.

If terrorism increases here, it will be necessary to take additional precautions to protect the nation However, the most reliable way to prevent terrorism is by conducting government in a manner that wins the public's trust and destroys the appeal of the lunatic fringe. It would be ironic if anti-terrorist legislation helped destroy the protections of our Constitution and turned the delusions of the paranoids into reality.

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