Teaching the Article
Day 2: Terrorism on American Soil?
Today, many Americans think of terrorism as an international problem that emanates from sources abroad. But American history is also punctuated by acts of violence perpetrated by U.S. citizens, aimed at intervening in domestic political controversies. This unit looks at several instances of terrorism on American soil and explores the responses of local, state, and federal governments. Despite grassroots pressure, for instance, the federal government never passed a law against lynching in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By contrast, more recent acts of terrorism often occasioned swift and dramatic action, even before the September 11, 2001, attacks. The following exercises examine a number of questions. What explains this divergence in governmental response to terrorist acts? Should all of the forms of violence discussed be classified as “terrorism”? How do particular historical contexts help us understand state responses to violence? How has the history of terrorism, seen in this broad historical perspective, shaped the American state and its law enforcement institutions?
Between 1880 and 1930, approximately five thousand lynchings occurred in the United States, overwhelmingly but not exclusively in the states of the Deep South. The vast majority of victims were African American men accused of violating legal and social norms. As the following photographs demonstrate, the “spectacle lynchings” of the era bear many of the characteristics often associated with terrorism: They were a form of spectacular political violence intended to communicate a political message to a broad public audience. Efforts to combat racial violence, however, met with resistance both from white southerners and from national politicians. Even in recent scholarship on the history of lynching, many historians hesitate to apply the label “terrorism” to the phenomenon of lynching.
- Does the term “terrorism” fit the cases of spectacle lynchings?
- What are the implications of applying such a term?
- What explains the federal government’s decades-long decision not to legislate against such violence?
- How important is lynching to the history of American terrorism and political violence?
- Photograph of a 1906 lynching in Salisbury, North Carolina (background essay by Claude A. Clegg III).
- Photograph of a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana (background essay by James H. Madison).
In the 1990s two major acts of terrorism—one international, one domestic—stoked fears about an escalating wave of violence on American soil. The first was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people, wounded 1,000 more, and caused one billion dollars in structural damage. As federal trials soon revealed, the bombing was carried out by a group of men loyal to a radicalized Egyptian cleric living in Brooklyn; they were fiercely critical of Western society and American policy in the Middle East. Two years later, on April 19, 1995, the American-born antigovernment zealot and decorated Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh exploded a massive bomb at the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 20 children at an on-site daycare center. In response to these two events, Americans debated both the origins and implications of international and domestic terrorism. For this exercise, examine these two editorials.
- How does each writer define terrorism?
- What does each identify as the cause of such violence?
- What strategies does each adopt for countering terrorism?