Leading article: Let the dust settle first

WHEN a massive bomb destroyed the US government offices in Oklahoma in 1995 the Western world moved swiftly to the conclusion that it had been planted by Islamic terrorists. Yet it turned out not to be the other side in the clash between Western secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. Rather it was the work of the enemy within, the group of right-wing ultra- libertarian militiamen who hold up a distorting mirror to the American dream.

There were few mea culpas from either press or politicians when the truth emerged. After all, it was the kind of thing which Muslim fanatics might have done. And so, in the past few days, we have seen the same process at work. There had been no specific warnings issued to US personnel in Kenya or Tanzania, and it was hard to see what local group could have prompted such devastating attacks. So the list of the usual suspects was produced and ticked off.

The Kenyan newspaper The Nation noted, without giving further detail, that a group of people of Arab descent had been seen in the vicinity of the bomb blast moments before the explosion. But it was not alone. Most British and American newspapers managed to produce the name of what one called the "obvious" candidate.

The problem was that they are all different. Some fancied the Saudi fundamentalist millionaire, Prince Osama bin Laden, whom the US State Department had already branded a "sponsor of terrorism" for his instruction to his followers to wage a holy war against the United States. (Washington also believes he had a hand in the Dhahran bomb which killed 19 Americans in 1996). Other media sources favoured Islamic Jihad, a convenient label as the name is used by several groups, including the group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and which only a week ago vowed to strike American interests after Washington helped to extradite some of their members from Albania. Yet others fingered Libya, Syria and Iran, not to mention Iraq. Several speculated on a group called the Army for the Liberation of Islamic Shrines which claimed responsibility in a telephone call to an Arabic paper in Cairo.

One American newspaper did not even bother offering speculation. It merely invited it. USA Today ran an Internet opinion poll asking readers who they thought was responsible. Yesterday afternoon the score stood at: Iraqi terrorists 35.8 per cent; other Arab terrorists 34.9 per cent; African terrorists 13.0 per cent; someone else entirely 16.2 per cent. But the vacuity of this exercise tells us something about the more conventional responses of the rest of the press. It speaks of the need to fill the horror of silence with the sound of indignation; to find certainties in an otherwise inexplicable world. It is as though pouring so-called facts into the void will somehow divert us from the reality that more than 100 people have died and some 2,212 others have been injured.

But, as Robert Fisk explains on page 19, this is a world where there are no such certainties, a world where black and white have an uncomfortable habit of merging into grey. Terrorism grows out of oppression, or a perception of it on the part of the aggrieved. All of which is not to say that Islamic extremists may not have been responsible for this latest outrage. But when the evidence is uncovered of who is to blame will be time enough to make judgement. Until then rash speculation about culpability is part of the problem rather than the solution.