The amount of media attention directed to the issue of domestic terrorism has increased dramatically since the early 1990s, and a whole cottage industry has grown up devoted to exposing the dangers from domestic right-wing and Islamic extremists. Yet most of the discussion has lacked any historical perspective. Although the terrorist attack of September 11 caused more death and destruction than any previous incident, the claim that Americans had—overnight—become aware of their vulnerability to a terrorist attack is absurd. Indeed, identical claims were made in 1993 and in 1995. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Newsweek (March 8, 1993) declared that the explosion had “rattled the country’s confidence, dispelling the snug illusion that Americans were immune, somehow, to the plague of terrorism that torments so many foreign countries.” Only two years later, Newsweek appeared equally surprised by the Oklahoma City bombing. The headline was “This doesn’t happen here,” and the first paragraph read: “It looked like Beirut. But the devastated building was deep in America’s heartland, ending forever the illusion that here at home we are safe” (May 1, 1995:26).
It appears to be the conventional wisdom that in America, until recently, terrorism was infrequent and unimportant. In fact, in the past half-century, the United States has experienced a significant amount of terrorism. According to my count, since 1954 but before September 11, well over 3,000 terrorist incidents and more than 700 terrorism-related fatalities have taken place within the United States and Puerto Rico. Certainly the United States has suffered relatively less from terrorist attacks than other Western nations such as Spain, Israel, Italy, or the United Kingdom, but it would be a serious misreading of the historical record to see terrorism as either a new or a trivial phenomenon in America.