Domestic Terrorism: Myths and Realities

The Boston Marathon bombers have brought a number of important assumptions into the national dialogue concerning the character of domestic terrorism. Unfortunately, the conversation has too often been filled with myths and misconceptions regarding the who, what, where, and why of terrorist activity in the United States. Four of these myths have been especially prominent:

MYTH 1: Terrorist attacks have increased dramatically since Sept 11, 2001 -- so much so that we have reached a higher plateau where terrorism is the "new normal."

Actually, just the opposite is true. We haven't experienced such a low level of political terrorism in decades. The number of terrorist incidents in the United States, by the year 2007, was down to eleven. By contrast, there were many more incidents before the 9/11 attack on America -- for example, 120 in the year 1975, 43 in 1982, and 48 in 1992.

Because of the incredibly large body count associated with 9/11, it is easy to forget the 1984 fatal shooting of outspoken Denver talk-show host Allen Berg by members of a neo-Nazi group known as "The Order," whose members raised funds through committing a series of robberies of banks and armored cars as well as counterfeiting. Or, right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh's 1995 massacre of 168 men, women, and children at a federal building in Oklahoma City. Or, Eric Rudolph's 1996 murder of two and injury of another 150 in his bombings of Olympic Park in Atlanta as well as two abortion clinics and a gay nightclub.

MYTH 2: Most terrorism in the United States has an international origin and is committed by radical Muslims.

Actually, the majority of terrorist acts have no connections to the Middle East or Asia, but are strictly home-grown, originating with American citizens who are left- or right-wing extremists, animal activists, environmental radicals, anti-abortion extremists. Most are committed by American citizens. Few are Islamic fanatics. According to the FBI, terrorist organizations in the United States have included the Animal Liberation Front, Aryan Nations, the Black Liberation Army, the Earth Liberation Front, the Jewish Defense League, Ku Klux Klan, the Order, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the F.A.L.N. (Puerto Rican Independence Organization).

MYTH 3: The United States has had more than its share of political terrorism.

Actually, the US has experienced dramatically less politically-motivated terrorism than almost any other country in the world. Not surprisingly, terrorist fatalities are largest in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, the Congo, and India. But even Western European countries have suffered more terrorist activity than the United States. From 1950 to 2004, for example, terrorists in Western European countries were responsible for almost 3000 deaths. During Northern Ireland's "troubles," some 1800 civilians lost their lives in terrorist acts.

In addition, there were horrific terrorist incidents in major cities across Western Europe. In 2004, for example, bombs placed aboard commuter trains in Madrid took the lives of 191 civilians and injured another 1800. In 2005, explosives placed aboard London's Underground trains and on a double-decker bus resulted in the deaths of 52 civilians and the four bombers. An additional 700 were injured.

MYTH 4: Terrorism is always politically motivated

The FBI sees terrorism, by definition, as having exclusively political motivation. This may be appropriate for characterizing the violence in Syria or Egypt, but not in the United States, where terrorism is as likely to come from psychopathology and personal gain as politics.

In 1981, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate then-President Reagan, not because he disagreed with the administration in Washington D.C., but because he wanted to impress actress Jodi Foster with national infamy. His delusional thinking was enough for a jury to find him not guilty by reason of insanity.

In October 2002, the DC snipers held the residents of Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia in the grip of terror as they randomly shot to death 10 innocent victims. The snipers' motive was not to change national policy but to extort ten million dollars from the authorities in exchange for ending the slaughter.

The alleged Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, apparently came to identify closely with the cause of radical Islam, but that is not the whole story. These marathon terrorists were more like rampage killers who enter a school, cinema, or shopping mall and indiscriminately target anything that moves. Their motive for planting explosives near the finish line of the marathon seemed to be revenge: They apparently blamed the United States for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they also seemed to blame everybody but themselves for their personal miseries.

It has been reported that Tamerlan was intensely angry -- so much so that he disrupted a prayer service at his local mosque. The brothers' uncle referred to the two terrorists as "a couple of losers." And, it was true that Tamerlan had recently suffered some major losses. He had become unemployed, on welfare, and dependent on his wife's meager income. Moreover, the older brother claimed to have had no American friends and apparently did little better befriending fellow Muslims, being recently expelled from his mosque. The "final straw" may have occurred when Tamerlan, who was reputedly the best boxer in New England, was declared ineligible for national competition because of his lack of U.S. citizenship.

Referring to the Boston Marathon bombing, President Obama used the term "self-radicalizing" to indicate the absence of an organized network such as al Qaeda.

In fact, many terrorists are no longer affiliated with organizations, even if they receive inspiration from them. Twenty years ago, the FBI was better able to infiltrate terrorist groups; nowadays, this has become -- in cases where the terrorists are lone wolves or consist of a small "cell" -- all but impossible. Since 9/11, the FBI has averted several potential acts of terror by their sting operations. On occasion, however, this tactic will probably be ineffective and the terrorists will succeed.

What can be done besides alerting our citizens to be vigilante? Somehow, we must reinstate the credibility of our public officials -- our president, our Congress, and our Supreme Court Justices -- so that alienated Americans do not feel they must go outside of the mainstream and radicalize in order to satisfy their goals.