Copyright 1994 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
December 25, 1994, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 1; Page 35; Column 4; Metropolitan Desk
LENGTH: 996 words
HEADLINE: Terrorism: Difficult to Prevent or Forget
BYLINE: By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
There is something about a bomb attack -- like the letter bombings in the Unabom case or Wednesday's firebombing on the subway -- that provoke a particularly intense fear. The explosions seem to come out of nowhere, transforming an ordinary routine like going to work or opening a package into a deadly act. And, there is the randomness of it, the fact that it can seemingly happen anyplace and at any time.
Yet despite last week's explosion on the subway, which injured more than 40 people, as well as the vastly larger blast at the World Trade Center nearly two years ago, officials and experts on security and terrorism were cautioning against overreacting to what were terrible but very rare incidents.
"I don't mean to sound callous about the tragedy of people injured in the subway attack, or killed by the Unabomber," said Brian Jenkins, the deputy chairman of Kroll Associates, an investigative and corporate security firm. "But in the United States, with 24,000 homicides a year, an American has a 1-in-10,000 probability of being murdered, while the odds of being killed by a terrorist bomb are something less than 1 in 100 million, which is a ten thousandfold difference."
The incidents and the resulting consternation highlight a paradox. On one hand, the incidents produce a kind of fear on the part of the public, in large part because they attract inordinate amounts of publicity. But the fact remains that terrorism, while scary and headline-grabbing, is, compared with other hazards, a minor threat.
"There is no fail-safe for these things, just as there are no fail-safes if you're walking on a street or in a shopping mall," said Lieut. Robert J. Valentino, a spokesman for the New York transit police. "But these are very isolated incidents. We had one last week and there was the one the week before. Prior to that, we can't even think of the last time something like that happened."
What has made the letter-bomb killing of a New Jersey advertising executive and last week's subway bomb seem particularly alarming is that they both occurred while people still have fresh memories of the explosion at the World Trade Center in February 1993, in which six people were killed.
The Trade Center blast was a mammoth one, and the recent explosions minuscule in comparison. They varied also in technical sophistication; in the Unabom case the explosive was more intricate, while the subway explosive was crude. And yet the bombings share several basic characteristics.
One common feature is that, as in most terror bombings, the Trade Center attack, the Unabom attack and the subway attack would have been very difficult to prevent. Security experts say that the measures needed to bring about perfect security would be so expensive and so intrusive that they would be impossible and undesirable in a democratic society.
One reason for the difficulty of preventing such attacks is the simple freedom of movement that exists in American cities, and the impracticality of systematically searching people who go into subways or shopping centers or parking garages or movie theaters. The Transit Authority once considered placing metal detectors at certain subway stations, but did not go ahead with the idea because of logistics and constitutional concerns.
A second reason such attacks cannot easily be thwarted is that almost anybody can make a bomb if he or she is determined to do it.
"Some explosives are very difficult to make, of course," said Edward M. Roy, an explosives expert at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. "However, a lot of them are easy; they're made of materials that you can go to the hardware store and the greenhouse to get."
Even the Unabom attacker, who is known for the high craftsmanship of his devices, would not have needed any special training in weaponry, electronics or explosives.
"He does not have to be former military, or a chemical engineer or anything special," Mr. Jenkins said. He added that while it takes skill to make a letter bomb, a crude device, like the one used in the subway, requires only a jar of gasoline, some wires, a battery and an alarm clock.
One readily available book, "The Anarchist Cookbook," for example, has recipes for pipe bombs and other explosives. Published by Barricade Books in New York, the book, which is essentially a compilation of material from police and military manuals, has sold two million copies since it was first published in 1971.
"It's sold in large quantity around university campuses, because it is sort of a gag to have it," said Lyle Stuart, the publisher of Barricade Books. "But no one really uses it, as far as we know."
A bomb is, in fact, a relatively simple device. It requires just four main ingredients, none of them difficult to get. First is a flammable material or an explosive, like gunpowder or ammonium nitrate, an ingredient in garden fertilizer. Second is a source of power, usually a battery. Somewhat more difficult to make is the third ingredient, a fuse or detonator to make a spark. The fourth is some kind of timing device, so the bomber can make it go off when he wants it to.
But the real difficulty lies in putting these parts together in an effective bomb, experts say. A poorly constructed device, like the one apparently used in the subway, can do as much damage to the plotter as to the intended victims.
While there is virtually no feasible method for preventing every determined bomber, there are a few signs to watch for. Lieutenant Valentino says that people should notify the transit police if they see a suspicious package, particularly a package left unattended, on the subway.
Letter bombs tend to have a lot of stamps, rather than a post office franking stamp, because the bomber, presumably, does not want to come face to face with a postal clerk. There might well be no return address. It might have a peculiar smell, or there might be grease marks on it, from leaked explosives.