CHAPTER 11
Terrorism and Extremism
in the United States
A Historical Overview

Christopher Hewitt

In this chapter the relationship between extremist movements and terrorism in the United States is considered. Terrorism is best seen as a macro phenomenon explained by the social and political conditions of the society in which it occurs. This may seem a strange claim since one of the main characteristics of American terrorism is its fragmented and divided quality. Terrorist attacks have been carried out by white and black racists, black nationalists, leftist revolutionaries, neo-Nazis, Puerto Rican independistas, antiabortionists, militant Jews, and numerous émigré groups. More than two hundred terrorist groups have been identified, most of them very small and short-lived. Furthermore, many terrorist acts were carried out by lone individuals not affiliated with any terrorist group. Thus, terrorism is often explained in terms of individual pathologies, terrorist personalities, and so on. In despair, Walter Laqueur notes that “terrorist movements are usually small, some very small indeed, and while historians and sociologists can sometimes account for mass movements, the movements of small particles in politics as in physics often defy any explanation.”1

The argument in this essay is that there have been a series of waves of terrorism in the postwar period, and that these waves are linked to the rise and fall of “extremist” mass movements. The FBI’s definition of terrorism

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