Just because the Persian Gulf war has ended in overwhelming victory for the United States and its allies doesn't mean that the threat of terrorism has gone away. In fact, the danger might be even greater in the future as humiliated and frustrated friends of Saddam and other anti-Americans see no other way to strike back at the West.
Concern about terrorism has been understandably high, partly due to Iraqi threats made after the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. Saddam called on Arabs to carry out terrorist attacks as part of the war.As a result, Washington went on high alert. The White House is asking Congress for a supplemental $77.6 million to cover costs of extra security measures taken inside and outside the country in recent months.
Actual terrorist incidents associated with the war have been few, but more attention needs to be paid to terrorism from a long-range perspective, including funds for research into high-tech defenses. Until the gulf war, such support had been dwindling.
A federal interagency group has seen its research budget dwindle from $10 million a year in 1986 to just $2 million last year. That reduction in funds has hampered the development of machines to detect small amounts of explosives in luggage. Also delayed is work on a detector for chemical or biological attacks.
The Federal Aviation Administration has achieved marked improvement in the past six months in using its thermal neutron analysis, or TNA detector, to find small amounts of explosives in large amounts of luggage. The device had been criticized earlier for failing to do an adequate job and sounding too many false alarms, which tended to ruin its effectiveness.
But new technology seldom springs full-blown into reliable use. There is a necessary period of development, ironing out flaws and discovering ways to make the product work better. A lack of quick success is no reason to reduce financial support.
In any case, more imaginative attention needs to be paid to terrorism. Waiting until a horrifying attack succeeds before rushing to find a way to prevent a repetition is not excusable, let alone effective. The United States must try to outguess terrorists before they strike.
Now that the United States has demonstrated its military might in such dramatic fashion, terrorists will surely look for other ways to fight the years-long Middle East conflict. So far, guns and bombs have been the methods, usually directed at airlines or overseas Americans.
But it may only be a matter of time until some desperate group tries a chemical or biological attack against U.S. cities, water supplies, or other vulnerable civilian targets. That possibility should never be ignored or dismissed just because it hasn't happened yet.