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U.S. Should Bring Justice, Not Vengeance to Bear against Terrorists

Smoke filled images of broken bodies and the jagged, sheared face of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah federal building have consumed my mind over the last two days. The only good in this tragic story is the immense compassion shown by local residents. Having grown up in Norman, a suburban town 20 miles south of Oklahoma City, I am proud, but definitely not surprised, that the community answered calls for volunteers, material assistance, and blood donations with such dispatch that the Red Cross has begun to refuse certain blood types. Cynics who decry our society's callousness should reconsider their judgment in light of the selfless humanity and shock brought forth by Wednesday's carnage.

President Clinton was right to condemn these killers as evil. When all is told, the body count will likely climb into the hundreds and evil is the only word to describe the taking of innocent life on such a large scale; that much is plain. Thus far, the Clinton administration has followed the right course of action by mobilizing an emergency rescue effort to save those who can be saved, and by sending a massive law enforcement detail to bring the killers to justice. And because justice is not always kind, these killers should be punished harshly.

I worry, though, that the state's zeal will turn into a thirst for vengeance against those who are perceived to bear some collective guilt. The U.S. government's record does not bode well for the future. On April 15, 1986, almost exactly nine years ago, 32 U.S. aircraft dropped heavy ordnance on two cities in Libya and killed more than 100 people. Then President Reagan said that the attack was to retaliate against the bombing of a Berlin discotecque which killed U.S. servicemen and to deter further violence. Two days later, two Britons and an American who had been kidnapped in Lebanon were found slain. A note near them said that they had been killed in retaliation for U.S. attacks against Libya.

Slaying innocents is evil, whatever its rationale and whether or not it is perpetrated by small bands of criminals or by governments. When killing is politically motivated, it usually leads to more killing. I hope that my government has learned these lessons, and that it refuses the temptation to cross the line from justice to vengeance in its response to the terror in Oklahoma City.

I also worry that this tragedy will stoke the ugliness of anti-Arab racism which runs deep in our society. Almost immediately following the explosion, former representative David McCurdy discussed in hateful tones the large Muslim community in the Oklahoma City area and supposed recent meetings of radical Islamic groups. Hours after the event, police were searching for two men "of middle eastern descent." So-called experts from the academic terrorism cottage industry were advocating domestic counter-insurgency programs. On talk radio programs, callers demanded the incineration of the criminals and the countries from which they came. Though it should be plain to all right thinking people, it bears reiteration that very little evidence is in; we have no idea whether the bombers were Americans or not, Caucasian or not.

In the days and weeks ahead, I hope that people will learn from the compassion displayed by those closest to the carnage and that the tragedy will bring us all, especially those in Arab-American communities, closer together. I also hope that my fellow citizens will remember that what separates us from them - indeed what should define that distinction - is not some fact about ethnicity or national origin, but that they are cold blooded killers and that we are not.

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