28th July 1996

Dehiwela, TWA, terrorism and the USA

By Rajpal Abeynayake

Two powerful bombs ripped apart two train compartments in a Southbound train leaving Colombo, Sri Lanka. The death toll was seventy and rising. A week earlier, a TWA airliner crashed shortly after takeoff from New York's Kennedy International Airport. The death toll was estimated at 288. A bomb was suspected to be the cause.

The way Americans handle this kind of terror is different. Trauma specialists are usually recruited, and families of victims are taken through an assembly line 'trauma process.'

In Sri Lanka, where bread is dear and blood is cheap, the 'trauma process' is an ongoing one. The LTTE did it again, as they were expected to. The BBC could not report that this was an 'economic target' because it was not one. There isn't much of an economy to target, anyway...

The Americans, of course haven't got used to the Sri Lankan style bomb. It takes at least ten years of sporadic bombing to reach the Sri Lankan level of conditioning, but the Americans are getting there.

The Americans are also getting used to the complexities and the paradoxes of handling reactions to a traumatic event such as a terrorist attack. The first American reaction to the TWA blast, which emanated from the White House was cagey about the theory of a terrorist attack. Usually, Americans are belligerent in their reactions to terrorism. President Reagan, for instance, would come out shooting from both hips. He promised to bomb Libya to kingdom come after the Lockerbie connection was revealed, and actually did so, killing one of Colonel Gadaffi's children in the process.

But, after terrorism reached home soil in America, the Americans are getting used to the idea of explosives and their ramifications. When the greatest show on earth is playing to full stadiums in the American heartland, President Clinton can hardly afford to make a 'we'll give 'em hell' kind of speech. When the Central Bank was bombed, the World Cup was only round the corner. Our Foreign Minister could hardly advertise the Central Bank blast, so he did the next best thing and called the Australians sissies for refusing to play cricket here for reasons of insecurity.

President Clinton simply couldn't spoil the Olympics so he underplayed the TWA crash, though everybody knew the aircraft didn't fall out of the sky for no reason. A simple timing device and a modest quantity of explosives, much less than what was used this week in Dehiwela Sri Lanka could have caused the TWA crash. Same stuff, same method, but with different results.

The TWA dead will not pass into history that easily, because terrorism aimed at America is something the world media takes very seriously. Tens of thousands of children were hacked to death in Rwanda, but it needed one crazy gunman to get a class of Scottish schoolchildren in Dunblane to hit the headlines.

America is big, and the TWA dead will get bigger headlines, and of course not a single piece of shrapnel will be left unturned in the quest to find who bombed TWA. The Dehiwela bomb will probably get two paragraphs in international news magazines. But then, that's the way the biscuit breaks.

With time, the TWA dead will be remembered with each anniversary, or each time there is a plane crash, or a bombing; and there will probably be a lot more in America. The Dehiwela victims will be lucky to get a footnote in history.

Not that we want the heavens to cry at the death of Sri Lankans.

The point is that the American heartland is coming to terms with the threat of terrorism. When America begins to understand, the rest of the world could get lucky.

The first bomb blast which targetted civilians in Sri Lanka took place almost ten years ago, at a time when the USA treated the LTTE like some mischievous poodles. 100 people dying by a bomb in Maradana, Sri Lanka didn't mean much, and 70 people dying in Dehiwela, Sri Lanka still doesn't mean much in the world's headlines.

But, now that Americans are being bombed too, the power of the explosive has acquired new meaning. President Clinton announced last year that terrorism is a worldwide scourge that should be wiped out; it seemed he had just come to the realisation that there was such a thing.

Immediate repercussions; the LTTE was officially branded terrorist.

The American government also offered tangible military assistance to Sri Lanka, something which had been denied for over ten years.

The US military assistance has been slow in coming; it is also obvious that the Americans are slightly embarrassed about previous State Department policy statements which have used kid gloves on the LTTE. (It is tempting to add that - until Mullaitivu - the Americans thoght they were on the winning side. That's just a joke, but the change in American policy has a lot to do with what happened there, than it had to do with what happened here).

But, now that the point has been laboured, what real bearing will American involvement in the war have on the Sri Lankan situation? Probably not much. The US of course is not expected to solve Sri Lankan problems.

But Clinton said a collective global assault on terrorism means that the American attitude to terrorism in Sri Lanka should be more than a token gesture towards combatting the violence here in this country.

If the Americans want to say, "okay, we can't be accused of having double standards." Well, perhaps that charge can't be thrown at them anymore. But if the Americans really want to wipe out terrorism, as a global scourge (Bill Clinton's words, not mine) then obviously there is a lot more than that that could be forthcoming from America in terms of security expertise, in terms of anti-terrorism equipment, and in terms of sharing anti-terrorist capability. The kind of apparatus that America shares with Israel for example.

Why terrorism anyway? There was a time when terrorism was still a dirty word in the Sri Lankan lexicon, where America was loath to call anybody terrorist except the Palestinians. Well, things have changed. But terrorism is still a weighted word. So let's leave it aside.

All we know is that Americans now don't like bombs. Bombs' burn people. They kill Americans. People who plant bombs have to be hounded out, or so says the American President.

We agree. We might just need a little help in that area. Global scourge and all that?

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