First a clarification: a recent comment in this space did a disservice to House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill in suggesting that he is unbothered by private American support to the Irish Republican Army. A former associate of the speaker has called my attention to a number of statements by O'Neill vigorously condemning IRA terrorism -- and Irish-American donations to the IRA.
But the donations continue; that's the point. That Congress, over which the speaker exercises a certain influence, has not been sufficiently bothered to devise an effective legislative remedy speaks to a larger argument advanced by retired admiral James L. Holloway III to a Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference here the other day. The subject was "Low Intensity Conflict," something the former chief of naval operations learned a good bit about as executive director of the vice president's task force on combating terrorism last year.
"Americans want their government to do something about terrorism," Holloway said. "But if they are concerned, they are also confused." That "thousands of American contribute regularly to provide the IRA with weapons and support," he went on, is only one example of the "host of contradictions we face in dealing" with terrorism.
The admiral cited more than enough examples to raise the prospect of a large problem for the Reagan administration if, as many are saying, the Libyan air raid marks a major turning point in counterterrorism policy. The polls tell us that Americans overwhelmingly welcomed the raid's implications: no more shilly-shallying. The question remains whether they will be equally supportive if the war on terrorism escalates in ways for which the American public (and Congress) would seem to oorly prepared.
"We cannot agree on what terrorism is," Holloway said. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." He cited polls showing that Americans want "a prompt, decisive response when terrorism strikes" -- but will not support actions that "endanger lives of hostages or innocent bystanders."
Congress is as contrary as the public. It wants America protected but doesn't want to pay up, Holloway argues. Pressure for cutting the deficit is denying the government "funds for the necessary people, equipment and facilities."
Yet recent polls put terrorism at the top of the list of public concerns, ahead of the deficit, unemployment and arms control. This public preoccupation with terrorism has to be some kind of tribute to the incandescent power of modern communication to concentrate American minds. As Holloway noted, "compared to the 40,000 Americans who die annually in traffic accidents, or roughly 18,000 who are victims of murders each year, the toll of terrorism seems small." (What does it say of American public priorities when, at the time of the Libya raid, Congress was refusing to vote stricter hand-gun controls?)
And what did the current contradictions in public thinking about terrorism say about the public response if terrorism's toll of Americans begins to match that of smaller nations (more than 900 foreigners were killed by international terrorist acts last year)? Would the clamor grow for ever-heavier blows against terrorist strongholds, or would Americans be increasingly inclined to seek safety by staying home?
I say "presumed" because there's a follow- up question. You have to wonder how Americans, already in a volatile state of mind, would respond to some of the horrors Holloway lists as distinct possiblities should the United States become a terrorist battleground: poisoning water systems with chemical biological agents; blowing up vulnerable microwave communication facilities, power generators and distribution grids; bombing nuclear power stations, releasing radioactive materials.
The vice president's highly classified task- force report made 44 recommendations to deal with terrorism's grim potential for growth. There lies its most important message: countering terrorism is a tough, tricky, sophisticated business. To the extent that the Libya air strike invites a contrary public sense -- that there is some quick fix -- it will only confound the public confusion that Holloway is worrying about.