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IS THE WORLD BECOMING SAFER?

Maybe the world is finally on its way to becoming a kinder, gentler place. At least there's room for hoping so in view of the report the other day from the State Department on an apparent turnaround in the incidence of international terrorism.

But don't start cheering yet.The trend, if that's what it is, may not last long. Moreover, as technology advances, explosives and other weapons become more destructive and easier to hide.

Anyway, after an almost continuous climb in international terrorism, the State Department's annual report notes that such incidents fell by 38 percent last year, the sharpest one-year drop in the 22 years that such statistics have been kept.

Attacks aimed at Americans overseas also declined and claimed far fewer lives - 16 last year, compared to 192 the year before.

Why this turnaround?

Possibly because of the toppling of communist governments in Eastern Europe that had armed, trained and otherwise aided many terrorist groups. And possibly because of the renunciation of terrorism by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But the PLO could quickly change its mind, if it hasn't already done so. In terms of helping terrorists, Iran is picking up where the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe left off. Terrorism tends to run in cycles, with downturns in the incidence of international terrorism followed by increased violence. This pattern could easily repeat itself again.

Moreover, the current decline in acts of terrorism between nations is accompanied by an upsurge in acts of violence within nations. This upsurge is particularly acute in Lebanon, where some groups are attacking their own followers.

The lessons should be clear: Despite the welcome decline in international terrorism, Americans still need to steer clear of various world trouble spots. And the United Nations still needs to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on outlaw countries that provide havens for killers.