Will Suicide Bombing Come to America?

Are U.S. national security measures adequate to prevent suicide attacks in this country?

April 17, 2002

Are U.S. national security measures adequate to prevent suicide attacks in this country?

I was living in the Soviet Union when Syria and Egypt attacked Israel on Yom Kippur — the holiest day of the Jewish calendar — in October 1973. The government-controlled Soviet media initially did not report the event, but waited in anticipation for the still-fledgling Jewish State to be crushed.

After the Israeli Defense Forces drove the invading armies back, Soviet newspapers declared that Israel had attacked its neighbors.

Frustrated that its client states, armed with the latest Soviet weapons, were so ignominiously defeated, the Soviet government later unleashed a nasty anti-Semitic campaign at home.

At the time, my family had just applied to leave the Soviet Union under the provisions of Jewish emigration and America’s Jackson-Vanick Amendment. We did not know what was going to happen to us in the anti-Jewish backlash, but the Israeli victory on the battlefield provided great emotional strength.

At the time, the Western world was also supportive of Israel. Even when Arab states declared an oil embargo, triggering a protracted global recession, this attitude didn’t change.

But that was nearly 30 years ago. Before the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, under the command of General Sharon. Before the steady expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Before the two bloody Palestinian intifadas in the occupied territories.

Now, the circumstances have changed. Israeli actions under the Sharon government have systematically driven many Palestinians to despair — and greatly cheapened the value of human life in the process.

Suicide bombing is certainly not a new phenomenon. After all, suicide bombers drove American marines out of Lebanon in 1983 — and they killed India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

But the repeated attacks in Israel, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Palestinians willing to carry them out, has turned suicide bombing into a new, fearsome weapon of terrorism.

As Israel has discovered, unlike hijackings and even other forms of bombing, this brand of terrorism is almost impossible to stop.

While no one questions Israel’s right to defend itself, Mr. Sharon has been pursuing a purely military strategy on the West Bank, leaving no opening for the Palestinians.

Israel’s military may succeed in eliminating a thousand current recruits to both Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. But in the process, it is probably creating several thousand more — not only among the Palestinians, but elsewhere in the region.

It is as though Mr. Sharon is intent on rebuilding the Al Qaeda training camps all over again — right next to his own country. After dragging its feet for over a year, this may be the main reason why the Bush Administration finally decided to take an active role in settling the Middle East conflict.

It may already be too late. Arab leaders are also worried about Yasser Arafat’s new weapon. It is true, of course, that there is very strong public support for the Palestinian cause among Arab leaders. But, in private, many of the same leaders dislike — and even fear — Chairman Arafat.

Mr. Arafat’s most successful wars have been conducted against other Arabs — including Jordan in 1969 and Lebanon in the late 1970s.

Armed with determined Palestinian suicide bombers, he has the wherewithal to introduce even greater turmoil into the Middle East.

But other Arab countries are not the only ones to be afraid. By pursuing its peacemaking activities so half-heartedly — and continuing for months to favor Israel in a one-sided fashion — the Bush Administration may have opened itself up as a target of Palestinian violence — right in the United States itself.

This brings us back to Jewish Americans. In 1973, there was no anti-Jewish backlash in the United States or Western Europe — because Arab retaliation against the West involved money, not lives.

But what happens if Middle-Eastern violence spills over into the United States? After all, it does not take much for a Palestinian suicide bomber to walk into a café or restaurant in New York or Washington and detonate an explosive — taking his or her own life as well as the lives of many others.

In fact, that terrorist might not even have to smuggle in his weapon of choice. According to a recent report by the Brady Center (a U.S.-based anti-handgun lobbying group), the 4,000 gun shows held annually around the United States have been a convenient source of weapons — including rocket launchers and other ammunition — for a variety of terrorist groups, including Hizbollah, the Irish Republican Army and U.S. right-wing militias.

Though tentative moves are now being made toward an Israeli withdrawal, the damage — in Arab countries and elsewhere — is already done. The pictures of destruction exist — and are indelibly etched in the public mind.

It is an open question exactly what reaction suicide bombings would elicit from the American people if they spread to the United States as well.