What appears to be a remarkable quietude in the activity of the world's terrorist groups should not be taken as a sign that the scourge of international terrorism has ended. To be sure, the dramatic changes in political and military balances around the world—from the collapse of communism to the rending of the Arab world which resulted from the Persian Gulf War—have not left terrorist groups unaffected. But whereas some of the objectives of terrorist groups and the infrastructure that makes their activities possible may have undergone important changes, terrorism remains as potent a threat as ever. Terrorism specialists in and out of government believe that the apparent calm of the past year or so may be only the prelude to yet another, more dangerous outbreak of terrorist attacks.
This need not be the case. For, paradoxically, changes in the world which make terrorist movements potentially more deadly also make it possible to undercut the terrorist threat more effectively. But undercutting it would require that the United States move away from its predominantly defensive approach to terrorism. It would also require us to decide how much weight ought to be placed on the right of people to be safe from wanton violence when protection of that right runs afoul of other foreign-policy objectives. Reorienting our policy regarding terrorism would be costly, in terms of both dollars and politics, but the potential rewards are considerable. A debate over strategy is taking place within the small community of U.S. policy-makers responsible for fighting terrorism, which is scattered throughout the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the National Security Council, the intelligence agencies, and national law-enforcement organizations.