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The concern generated by the threat of terrorism since the events of Oklahoma City and September 11, 2001 clearly demonstrates that the threat of terrorism within the borders of our country is not negligible. Terrorism is both an ideological and political concept. By its very nature, politics is adversarial thus any definition of terrorism will vary from one person's or nation's philosophy to another. This makes the definition subjective and not likely one reached by consensus.
The difficulty in defining terrorism is only compounded, as there are many types of terrorism not just one generic type. To define terrorism, it will be necessary to first separate out the tactics of terror from the concept of terrorism. Thus, the distinction between terrorism, guerrilla warfare, conventional warfare, civil wars, riots and criminal activity is often clouded or blurred. We must understand that terrorists are not the only individuals who use acts of terror. Many violent acts and tactics, although generally associated with terrorism, may also be common elements in the definitions of rape, murder, or other violent crimes.
The United States Code, which is established by the U.S. House of Representatives, codifies by subject matter all of the laws of the United States. The Code defines terrorism as "premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents" (22 U.S.C. 2656f, n.d.). It specifies that international terrorism involve citizens or the territory of more than one country. The Code of Federal Regulations, issued by the executive branch, however defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in the furtherance of political or social objectives" (28 CFR Part 0 Subpart P 0.85, n.d.). The disparity between these two definitions exemplifies the difficulty in establishing a clear definition of terrorism.
Even so, terrorism today comes in two "flavors," international and domestic. International, which is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations, and domestic which can be defined as "those activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States" (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004). Regardless of its flavor, terrorism is fundamentally and inherently political. It is about power, its acquisition, and its use to achieve political change. It alters the behavior of not only individuals and terrorist organizations, but also members of entire societies.
The U.S. has a long history of political violence, however, until recently, many have not characterized these acts as terrorism. From self-styled defenders of liberty to Islamic extremists there are striking similarities among all terrorist ideologies regardless of their political persuasion. Domestic terrorism can be broken into four categories based in ideology - state-sponsored, left wing class struggles, white supremacist, and religious extremist.
State sponsored or wholesale terrorism, often described as terror from above, relies on the manufacture and wholesale spread of fear by authorities, Congress, and tyrannical governments of the Middle East or Latin America. As far back as the 19th century, indigenous Americans were attacked and their culture nearly eradicated by official government policy. The Removal Act of 1830 caused the forced march of the five great Indian tribes from their farms and businesses along the eastern seaboard to the badlands of Oklahoma. Labor organizers were also targeted by government agencies during their struggle to form unions throughout the early 20th century. In 1914, national guardsmen attacked a tent colony during a strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in what would become known as the Ludlow massacre. In each of these examples, formal policies were developed to carry out a campaign of terror. U.S. forces were used in each of these situations to threaten or deliver violence as a means of furthering political agendas (Mahan & Griset, 2008).
Unlike wholesale or state-sponsored terrorism, retail terrorism is perpetrated by individuals and small non-governmental groups. A good portion of these retail terrorists arise in response to official failures of wholesale injustices. Prevention generally focuses with dealing intelligently and humanly with local and regional grievances and abandoning state-sponsored violence (Mahan & Griset, 2008).
Leftist class struggles were well known during the 1960s and 1970s. Groups such as Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and the Puerto Rican Nationalists facilitated these insurgent movements. These radical groups focused their conflict over racial disparities and economic inequality. Their enemy was the corporate imperialist system. Many of these groups formed because of anti-war sentiments and civil rights issues. These groups would turn to underground guerilla combat when their street demonstrations had no effect on government policy (Mahan & Griset, 2008).
Another category, racial supremacy, came about following the civil war. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan continued to carry out deliberate acts of racial terrorism for more than a century following the war. In the 1960s, cultural changes saw changes in race relations, which fueled more controversy and spawned systematic campaigns of terror against Black community leaders and gathering places. It should be noted that racial supremacy is not necessarily white. Black separatist groups held that the white race and their religion are their open enemies. These separatist groups were responsible for acts of arson and assassinations. Eventually the movement went underground until the early 1990s when it resurfaced under the leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan. Under this latest movement, there have been no ties to acts of terrorism (Mahan & Griset, 2008).
White supremacists, however, focus on the illegitimacy of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. government. They tend to have an obsessive suspicion of the government that is riddled with conspiracy theories today, right-wing extremist groups have diversified. These groups may include traditional racists, anti-tax protesters, survivalists, Nazi or Neo-Nazi movements, and separatist advocates of sovereign citizenship (Mahan & Griset, 2008).
The last category is that of religious extremism. The growth of religious terrorism worldwide accounts for the increased severity of terror attacks since the early 1990s. For many of these extremists violence is the only solution to overthrow the government and obtain religious redemption. Many feel there is no unified domestic threat from religious extremists rather a context for social protest that centers on the moral and social crisis in the United States. Religious extremism however, is driven by an inner logic common amongst diverse groups and faiths that turn to political violence to further their sacred causes (Mahan & Griset, 2008).
The United States however, has been consistent with how it deals with extremists and terrorists. In a 1986, policy directive, the Vice President's Task Force on Combating Terrorism conducted and completed an in-depth review of existing polices, capabilities, and resources available for dealing with the existing terrorist threat. The task force recognized that terrorists undertake criminal acts that may involve the use or threat of violence against innocent persons and that these acts are generally premeditated. In addition, the task force recognized that U.S. citizens within the country and abroad were increasingly at risk of being targeted with acts of terrorism. They recommend, what the government has continued to uphold today, a policy of firm opposition to terrorism regardless of it being domestic or international (Reagan, 1986).
In 1986, it became the policy that the United States will remain steadfast in acting against terrorists without surrendering basic freedoms or endangering democratic principles. In addition, Additionally, the new policy clearly stated opposition to asylum, sanctuary, or safe haven for terrorists and that every legal effort to extradite and prosecute terrorists will be taken. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, this policy was strengthened under the Patriot Act to ensure continued resolve against the terrorist threat whether domestic or international (Reagan, 1986).
As it appears in the media, modern day terrorism is usually associated with Islamic extremists or suicide bombers. These individuals and groups, however, are not the only threats to the citizens of the United States. There are groups and individuals living within or borders that are just as capable of performing an act of terror. Regardless of which definition of terrorism you chose to accept, these domestic terrorists will meet the same stance and repercussions as any international threat.