Sep. 11, 2001: Where do we draw the line?

How do we balance the rights of American people to exercise their extraordinary freedoms against the intent of people in the world – and in our own country – who choose to make their political statements not through a free press, but with cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent people?

The recent and unimaginable acts of terrorism are another tragic reminder that something has to change. We can’t remain a free country and continue to endure the atrocities that have been committed against us. We must either curtail our freedoms to go where we want and say what we want and do what we want or we must find an effective way to deal with the problem.

I speak from experience. I was with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, and the subject of terrorism was with us every day. I happened to be at the White House on the day of the bombing in Oklahoma City. The first thought that came to everybody’s mind was – Arab terrorists. Little did anyone know at the time that it was Americans attacking Americans.

On an early Saturday morning at the midpoint of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, I was awakened to be told that a bomb had gone off in Centennial Olympic Park, a place where thousands gathered every night in a wonderful celebration of goodwill among people from throughout the world. Despite the criticism the Olympics get – much of it deserved – the concept is sound. The Games are about peaceful competition – a substitute for war and it had worked wonderfully until someone had to make a statement and decided to make it with a bomb. The perpetrator has never been caught but the chances are excellent that it was an American.

I remembered a high-level security briefing with the FBI before the Games in which they told us how hard it is to prevent terrorism in a country that has the freedom of movement that we have. I won’t describe the scenarios they gave us for the kinds of bad things that could happen because I don’t think they would want me to, but suffice it to say, we are vulnerable. Not because our government doesn’t take terrorism seriously, because it does. Rather, our way of life doesn’t make it easy to catch all the nut cases, both here and abroad, who have an ax to grind.

Something has to be done. I don’t want my grandchildren to have to grow up afraid for their lives. I don’t want a bunch of cowards to continue to make their statements with the lives of innocent Americans. I don’t want to endure another week like this one.

I have had the opportunity to see terrorism up close, and it is frightening. It is the act of cowards. The worst thing we can do is throw up our hands in desperation. That is exactly what terrorists want us to do. They want us to lose our will and our spirit. No chance.

The very first decision that Billy Payne and his staff made after the Olympic Park bombing was to declare that the Games would continue. It was a risky decision because at that point we didn’t know what else might happen, but we did know that we would not be held captive by a sick mind. It was the right decision. It was almost as if the public wanted to make their own statement and they did. Huge crowds assembled for the competitions that day. We had a full contingent of volunteers. We sold more tickets that day for the next day’s competition than we had done on any day previously. If the terrorist was trying to bring down the Games, he failed miserably.

I have a feeling we will react the same way to this unprecedented attack on our citizens. We won’t be intimidated and we will severely punish the people who are responsible.

But what about the future? Are we willing to give up some of our freedoms in order to make it harder for foreign and domestic terrorists to commit their acts of violence and satisfy some grudge – real or perceived? Can we live as freely and openly as we have and not be subjected to random terrorism? Can we balance freedom and security?

Where do we draw the line?