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HOW TO KEEP TERRORISTS FROM GETTING THEIR WAY

Though plenty of ink already has been devoted to this week's cowardly car-bombing in Oklahoma City, still more comment and analysis are in order.

That's because Americans need to do considerable thinking and soul-searching if they are to limit the damage this ghastly episode can do to America's character and mind.The task could be one of the most difficult and demanding this nation has ever faced. Consider just a few of the dimensions of this possibly historic challenge.

For openers, look at the ease with which just about anyone can obtain the material and information needed to make a bomb like the one in Oklahoma City. This bomb was so powerful that its blast left a crater 8 feet deep, tore the front off all nine stories of the downtown federal building, was felt 20 miles away and left 36 victims dead and many missing.

There are ways to formulate explosives from chemical fertilizers and other ordinary materials available at gardening supply stores. Dynamite and fuel oil are readily available, too, along with the ammonium nitrate evidently used in the Oklahoma City bomb. It would, of course, be impossible to restrict, let alone stop, the sale of such commodities.

What about the technical know-how it takes to fashion such materials into a bomb? That information, as terrorists and various other fanatics already know, can be found in a variety of manuals available at the nearest library or book store.

Those sources can't be dried up without violating the First Amendment. Even if that unthinkable step were taken, the bombmaking formulas still could be circulated over hard-to-police computer networks or by impossible-to-police word of mouth.

How about making the death penalty mandatory in crimes involving the lethal use of explosives, then expediting the completion of justice without the lengthy appeals now so appallingly common in capital punishment cases? While a case can be made that such a step would help deter other types of killers, the horrifying fact is that terrorists tend to be so fanatical they often even welcome death.

What recourse, then, is available and advisable to an America no longer nearly as safe as it used to be?

At least part of the answer can be found in Great Britain, which has been subjected to repeated bombings and other acts of violence by Irish nationalists. The key to the answer provided by the British lies in the fact that the ultimate purpose of terrorism is to terrorize and demoralize.

By a gritty exercise of collective will-power, the British have simply refused to let themselves be intimidated. No, the anxiety never entirely goes away. But eventually, as the British have found, the horror and trauma subside and life goes on.

But there can be a stern price to pay for the traditional stiff British upper lip. After decades of terrorist attacks, British society has become more factionalized and xenophobic. The upshot is an anti-Irish sentiment that sometimes results in denials of housing or jobs to people who speak with a brogue.

If there are more episodes like the one this week in Oklahoma City, Americans had better brace themselves for a test of their national character and common sense, too.

Inevitably, part of the response will be more police, more metal detectors and more concrete barriers. But the ultimate triumph is to be achieved through other means. Bombs can destroy buildings and flesh. But Americans have it in their power to deprive terrorists of victory by showing that the tools of terrorism cannot kill principles and ideals, decency and hope.