Terrorism, Fears of

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Terrorism, the unpredictable and apparently random use of violence against civilians and governments to create fear and to disrupt society, has been used for centuries as a means to achieve political goals. The September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was the one of the most destructive and dramatic acts of terrorism, but by no means the first against the United States. Recent terrorist acts and especially the threat of terrorism have, in ways reminiscent of the nuclear terror during the height of the Cold War, dramatically affected American society, culture, public policy, and even the nation's perceived identity.

While receiving less attention than the events of 9-11, there have been many instances of domestic terrorism in the United States, particularly during the period of social unrest over the Vietnam War in the 1960s. A number of indigenous terrorist groups developed from the frustrated aspirations of leftist student movements. Some examples include the Symbionese Liberation Army; the Black Panthers; and the Weatherman Underground, a splinter group of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In the 1970s, there was a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which inspired the development of neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, and right wing militia terrorist groups. Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 dead and over five hundred injured, was a member of one of these militias. Other domestic terrorists included left wing groups such as Puerto Rican separatists, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF). Although not connected to these groups, the two-decade anti-technology crusade of Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) falls into this category.

International terrorism exploded onto the American political agenda in the 1960s. Major incidents included kidnapping of U.S. diplomats in Latin America, numerous hijackings of commercial airliners, the attack on American travelers at Israel's Lot airport in 1972, the execution of two American diplomats during the terrorist seizure of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum Sudan in 1973, and the 1979 takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, Iran. National anguish over the fate of the American hostages in Iran and President Jimmy Carter's inability to secure their release, including the disastrous rescue attempt Operation Eagle Claw, were among the factors leading to the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Throughout Reagan's time in office, terrorism continued to be an international problem. There were numerous attacks on American targets abroad: first the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassy and marine barracks in Beirut; then the bombing of U.S embassy in Kuwait and the hijacking of both TWA Flight 847 and the cruise ship Achille Lauro, all in 1985. Additionally, a series of attacks sponsored by Libya's Muammar Qaddafi led to the U.S. bombing his home (Operation El Dorado Canyon), killing several members of his family. The 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. which left 270 dead including 189 Americans, was tied to Libya and is believed to have been Qaddafi's revenge for the U.S. attack.

The 1990s saw a gradual decline in Marxist-inspired terrorism and the growth of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. Radical Islamic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah provided examples for other militants. One group that came to prominence during this time was al-Quaida, which was created by Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama bin Laden. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, bin Laden was recruited by the Saudi Arabian intelligence service to help organize and fund anti-Soviet fighters. Bin Laden recruited Muslims from all over the world as Mujahidin (holy warriors). Once the Soviets were defeated, these Mujahidin returned to their home countries radicalized in their faith and very well trained in military arts.

Anger at the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War (1990–91) led bin Laden to denounce the United States as the "great Satan." Drawing upon a global network of thousands of Afghanistan veterans, al Quaida has been connected to numerous anti-American terrorist attacks, including the World Trade Center attack in 1993, the suicide bombing of American military facility in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 1996, the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in 2000, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, and many others. The death toll from the 9-11 attacks was nearly three thousand people. These attacks were followed by a series of anthrax attacks against government officials from unknown assailants.

Terrorism since 9-11 has had a profound affect upon American society and culture. The destruction of the World Trade Center was a blow to an already weak economy. It led to major changes in the policy and government organization as a result of the passage of the USA Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The focus on homeland Security initiated an intense national debate concerning the balance between a government's requirement to protect the people from attacks and the citizens' right to personal and civil liberties. As a result of this new twenty-first-century war, Americans have been forced to deal with invasive security checks at airports, sporting events, and national landmarks.

Since 2001 the United States has been engaged in extensive military operations in the attempt to defeat terrorism. The 2001 preemptive war in Afghanistan against the Taliban was aimed at removing the government harboring al-Quaida and destroying terrorist training camps. The war against Iraq begun in March 2003 was justified by the U.S. government as part of the campaign against terrorism. These operations have directly affected congressional spending on defense as well as the lives of hundreds of thousands of military personnel, reservists and their families, and have redefined America's role in the world.

The end of the Cold War in 1991 was viewed as the beginning of a new era of peace, but that optimism has been short lived. The fear of terrorism, resulting in the need for more domestic security and wars against terrorists, will probably continue to shape American policy, society, and culture for decades to come.


Heymann, Philip B. "Dealing with Terrorism: An Overview." International Security 26 (2001–02): 24–38.

Pillar, Paul R. Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

Piszkiewicz, Dennis. Terrorism's War with America: A History. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Craig T. Cobane

See also:Al-Qaida and Taliban; Civil Defense, 1946–Present; Homeland Security; Hostage Crisis, 1979–1981; 9–11.

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