Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as the systematic use of terror, especially as a means for coercion. The definition has evolved over the years, with a common thread since its introduction as the English translation of words used by the French during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), and that thread is political in nature. (Merriam-Webster, 2018) As a means of control of one or many groups or parties. The word has been used since its inception by some of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson in 1795, John Adams in 1799, usually in personal correspondence in regards to other nations. Stating that terrorism didn’t happen as easily in America as in other European countries, as battles determined the fate of our nation. (Merriam-Webster, The History of the Word Terrorism) Although that would change as the country grew into its own and into the modern age. In fact, terrorism has become a commonly used word in our vocabulary with the advancement of technology, social media and hashtags. In this paper I will attempt to give some historical examples of acts of terrorism perpetrated on American soil, and explain why it is so prevalent in today’s society.
Terrorism is often thought of, in today’s society, as a lone wolf, or small group, acting out against another group, political party, or acting on behalf of one of the aforementioned entities. In the beginning it was harder to differentiate. During the American Revolution any acts of terrorism committed by the colonist or the English would have been looked at as a necessary evil to win the war and regain control/assume control of a country as a whole. As our country evolved under its own control with its own government and political parties were formed, acts were now seen as crimes against the country. An example of this is the assassination of President Lincoln shortly after the effective end of the Civil War.
John Wilkes Booth was a Confederate sympathizer, well known actor, and mastermind behind the assassination. First conceived as a kidnapping but after multiple attempts and failures, it became a plot to assassinate the President, Vice President and Secretary of State, though only one would actually come to fruition. There were multiple players set in three separate locations set to attack at the exact same time. Lewis Powell, a former Confederate soldier, was tasked with the attack on Secretary of State, William Seward, and a German immigrant, prior spy for the Confederacy, George Atzerodt, was to kill Vice President Johnson. Powell did in fact break into Seward’s home and attack. Ultimately, he failed in his mission, partially because Seward’s son defended his bed ridden father, and also because the carriage accident that left the Secretary of State bedridden in the first place required him to wear a metal surgical collar that protected against the attack.
Vice President Johnson’s would be killer had a change of heart and never attempted the crime. (Wallenfeldt, n.d.)
Booth, however, finally succeeded in a plot against the !6th President of the United States, and at Ford Theatre in Washington D.C. on 14 April 1865, shot in the back of the head and mortally wounded Lincoln as he sat watching a play with his wife and guests. After shooting the President, and jumping from Lincolns theatre box to the stage below, he was heard saying Sic semper tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants) and/or The South is avenged! (possibly both) thus signaling his motives were political in nature. Booth escaped the theatre and met with another cohort before going into hiding. He was finally caught some 12 days later, after the largest manhunt in history, and was either shot or died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound before he could be brought to justice. (Wallenfeldt, n.d.)
His reasonings were pretty simple, as a strong advocate for the slave system, and self-proclaimed southerner, he passionately disliked the President and all abolitionist, and moreover, the Presidents political party for their want to free the slaves. The fall of the south just days earlier pushed him past the point of reason and resulted in terrorism committed on American soil against his own countrymen for the advancement of his political party. The terrorist act he carried out, an act meant to empower the south seemed to have to opposite effect, in a sense. Instead of being hailed as a hero, as he had expected, the nation seemed to condemn him for his actions. This fact was not lost on him as he even journaled about it while in hiding. Lincoln’s death made him a sort of martyr even to those in the North who did not care for him, in death he was revered and the nation came together to mourn his loss. (Wallenfeldt, n.d.)
Why is this important, this is a prime illustration of a zealot of one political party committing a crime against another to gain some sort of control. Booth anticipated the death of President Lincoln to refresh the South and thrust them back into the fight. His political beliefs and strong hatred for another political party sent him into a reckless tailspin that brought about a shift in the Nation, just not the shift he was anticipating. Thus, paving the way for later generations to attempt the same sort of methodology. The abolitionists, slavery and the oppression of the black population during this time, would later lead to acts of terrorism during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
America in the 1960’s found itself in the midst of a struggle between African American and whites.
Long held racial prejudice and bigotry still existed against African American wanting nothing more than to be treated as equals. The Civil Rights Movement saw much bloodshed as the African Americans stood up for their rights. The South was the prime area for civil rights activity and Birmingham, Alabama was a particular hotbed for racial tension. The governor’s stance against segregation was well known, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was particularly violent in this area. The bombings of black home and places of worship was so rampant that the city gained the nickname Bombingham (History.com, 2010). With the prevalence of the KKK in Birmingham, as well as the widespread white supremacist beliefs, the Civil Rights Movement organizers chose this location as their location.
The 16th Street Baptist church was the starting point for a vast majority of the civil rights marches that took place in Birmingham in 1963. This made the church a potential target for white supremacists. On the morning of 15 September, 1963, as the congregation was preparing for service, a homemade bomb consisting of dynamite detonated. The explosion killed four young girls, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley (Parrott-Sheffer, 2009).
More than twenty others were injured in the blast. The bombing sent shockwaves through the community and violence spread into the streets of Birmingham. Despite calls for justice to be served, authorities did little to actively pursue the investigation of the bombing. It wasn’t until almost fifteen years later in 1977, that the first suspect would be brought to trial. That suspect was White supremacist and known Klansman Robert Edward Chambliss. Even though the blast killed four, Chambliss was only convicted on one count of murder (NY TImes, 1985). Over the course of almost 25 years, the case was opened and closed repeatedly as new information was found. In total, three more suspects would be implicated in the bombing, with two being convicted. The individuals convicted were Bobby Cherry and Thomas Blanton. The third suspect, Frank Cash, died before ever seeing a courtroom (Parrott-Sheffer, 2009).
The attack was a textbook case of terrorism in the respect that the goal was to instill fear in the population for the political agenda of keeping segregation and the oppression of African Americans. While some terrorist attacks are executed for political or ideological reasons, Others are based in religion, such as the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.
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