Terrorism in America

A Guide to Terrorism in America

1920 Wall Street Bombing
1920 Wall Street Bombing. Library of Congress

Terrorism in America, like America itself, is a product of the many populations, issues and conflicts that co-exist within the nation’s borders.

The United States is nearly unique among nations for its ability to “contain multitudes” in relative harmony. On examination, a substantial amount of terrorism in American history is motivated by an extreme distrust of the American ideal of democracy, in which people of varied backgrounds can all claim loyalty to and the benefits of the American system. In other words, despite enormous variation in terrorism’s expression, domestic terrorism in the United States can often be explained as a violent claim over what or who is authentically American.

This distrust has had various forms of expression by different groups, in different periods.

The Early Republic: Colonists Use Violence to Proclaim Independence

Although the Boston Tea Party does not necessarily come to mind as an act of terrorism, the staged rebellion by colonists was meant to threaten the British into changing its policy of taxing colonist tea importers' imports, while offering a tariff-free trade to its East India Tea Company. Putting the Boston Tea Party in the category of terrorism can be a useful exercise for comparing the goals and tactics of different national liberation groups, which is what the Americans--once upon a time--were.

Post-Civil War Terrorism: Violent White Supremacy

The first and arguably most entrenched terrorist in the United States is based in an ideology called "white supremacy," which holds that white Protestant Christians are superior to other ethnicities and races and that public life should reflect this purported hierarchy.

In the period before the Civil War, American social organization did, in fact, reflect a presumed white supremacy, since slavery was legal. It was only after the Civil War, when Congress and the Union military began to enforce equality between the races that white supremacy emerged. The Ku Klux Klan grew out of this period, using a variety of means to terrorize and harm African-Americans and sympathetic whites. In 1871, they were outlawed by Congress as a terrorist group, but they have had several violent incarnations since then. The Ku Klux Klan is no longer violent, but it has many chapters and continues to spread a racist ideology today, often against immigrants.

1920s: Communists and Anarchist Violence Erupts

The Bolshevik revolution that created the Soviet Union in 1917 had a powerful effect on socialist-minded revolutionaries the world over, including in the United States. And the "roaring twenties," a period of tremendous wealth building by American "robber barons" provided a useful background for agitators against inequality. Most of this agitation had nothing to do with terrorism--labor strikes were common, for example. But anarchist and communist violence expressed the extreme end of a mainstream rift running through American society. The resulting "red scare" expressed people's terrible fear that a communist revolution could unfold on American soil. One of the first cases of terrorism to be investigated by the FBI was the 1920 bombing on Wall Street by suspected anarchists. A spate of unsolved bombings in 1920 also gave rise to the infamous Palmer Raids, a series of mass arrests of Americans of Russian and other origins. The 1920s were also a period of upsurge in KKK violence, carried out not only against African-Americans but also against Jews, Catholics and immigrants.

1960s-1970s: Domestic Terrorism Explodes

The expansion of plane travel beyond an elite few in the 1950s and 1960s enabled hijacking -- or skyjacking, as it was known then. In the United States, flights going to and from Cuba frequently hijacked, although not always motivated by a strong political intention.

This was the era, in other parts of the world, of post-colonial national liberation movements. In Algeria, in the Middle East, in Cuba, guerrilla warfare was "revolutionary chic" as much as it was a serious tactic. Both the serious intention and the youthful fashion took hold in the United States.

American youth opposed to what they viewed as American imperialism, fueled by the ideals of civil rights for blacks, women, gays, and others, and deeply opposed to the deepening entanglement in Vietnam, turned radical. And some turned violent.

Some had a relatively coherent platform, such as the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, while others, like the Symbionese Liberation Army--which, famously, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst--were more generally in favor of something vaguely revolutionary.

1980s: Right Wing Terrorism on the Rise

The radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s was followed by the conservatism of the Reagan era, in mainstream America. Political violence too, took a turn to the right. In the 1980s, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups such as Aryan Nation saw a resurgence, often among working class white males, who perceived themselves as displaced by women, African Americans, Jews, and immigrants who benefited from new civil rights legislation.

Terrorism in the name of Christianity also surged in the 1980s and 1990s. Radical groups and individuals committed to violent action to stop abortion were among the most visible. Michael Bray, head of a group called the Army of God spent four years in prison for his abortion clinic bombings in the 1980s.

In 1999, the most lethal act of domestic violence to date occurred when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. McVeigh's stated motivation--revenge against a federal government that he viewed as intrusive and oppressive, was an extreme version of more mainstream desire among many for a smaller government. Dean Harvey Hicks, a citizen angry over his taxes, for example, created the one-man terrorist group "Up the IRS, Inc." and tried to bomb IRS locations.

21st century: Global terrorism comes to America

The September 11, 2001 attacks by Al Qaeda continue to dominate the story of terrorism in the United States in the 21st century. The attacks were the first major act of global terrorism in U.S. territory. It was the culminating event of a decade of rising extremist, militant religious sentiment in many quarters of the world.