One afternoon during the late 1990s, I was driving my car while my eight-year-old stepdaughter sat in the back seat. I was navigating through heavy traffic on Interstate 85 near Atlanta, Georgia, during rush hour, a harrowing experience for even the most steely, experienced driver. For some reason I can no longer recall, I was in an especially foul mood that day. I normally played the radio or chatted with my stepdaughter, but on that afternoon we were quiet, each of us lost in our own thoughts.
Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, a pickup truck raced past my car and swerved into my lane. Fearing an imminent collision, I slammed on the brakes, eliciting a cacophony of horn blowing from the cars following behind me. I am not what my mother used to call a “potty mouth,” but now and again I can spew forth expletives in the same league with any sailor alive.
This was one of those occasions. Before I realized I had uttered anything aloud, the car was filled with a creative menagerie of colorful words and phrases, some of which were repeated over and over for effect. One word in particular performed triple duty as a noun, verb, and adjective.
When I recovered my composure and realized what I had said, I glanced in the rearview mirror. My stepdaughter’s eyes were large ovals and her mouth was frozen in an “o” of surprise. Realizing that I had violated one of my own cardinal rules about watching one’s language, I felt an explanation was required.
“I should not have said what I just said,” I told her. “Sometimes, however, when we get upset, we say things we normally would not say."
“Why are you upset?” she asked.
It was a valid question. “I don’t know if you saw the truck that cut in front of us,” I replied, pointing to the monstrosity zigzagging in and out of the lanes ahead. “But he came very close to hitting us. I was so scared and upset that I spoke without realizing it.”
She nodded, although she did not look entirely convinced by the logic of the explanation.
“Whoever is driving the truck is a bad guy,” I said feeling a bit lame and embarrassed by my excuse. “Sometimes really bad guys bring out the worst in us.”
“Why is he a bad guy?”
“He’s bad because he could have hurt us. He’s dangerous.”
She nodded, now apparently getting the point. “Oh, he’s like Eric Rudolph,” she said matter-of-factly.
I could not help but chuckle. Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber, had been in the news recently, especially because we lived near Atlanta, where his initial bombings occurred. Despite the ubiquitous press coverage, I was surprised that an eight-year-old knew anything about him.
She squinted at me, deeply suspicious that I was making fun of her. “What’s so funny?” she asked.
“How do you know about Eric Rudolph?”
As I watched her in the rearview mirror, my stepdaughter sighed and rolled her eyes, exasperated with me and my stodgy ways. “Oh, daddy,” she said, “everybody knows about Eric Rudolph.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I don’t think the guy driving the pickup truck is quite as bad as Eric Rudolph.”
I mention this anecdote because it illustrated to me how much terrorism has affected our culture.
I doubt my eight-year-old stepdaughter—or most Americans, for that matter—could have identified winners of the Nobel Peace Prize or leading cancer researchers or anyone holding a high-ranking federal position aside from the president or vice president of the United States. Yet she was acquainted with a disaffected serial terrorist who desired nothing so much as to maim and kill innocent people.
Like so many alienated souls—“wicked men” I call them in the title of my forthcoming book, although terrorism is not the exclusive realm of males—Eric Rudolph nursed a deep, unrelenting, all-encompassing anger, an anger that pushed him to lash out and inflict his pain on other people. This little nobody who could have been expected to grow up, live his life, pursue his career, raise his family, retire, and die unheralded had become a well-known symbol of at least one aspect of popular culture.
Everybody knows about Eric Rudolph. If that’s true, perhaps terrorism pays off in some ways even as it is self-defeating in other ways. Perhaps infamy is a coin of the realm.
Beginning with that long-ago incident, I have often reflected on how much terrorism has penetrated the American consciousness. Moreover, throughout the years I have wanted to explore the question of whether terrorism pays off. The short answer is maybe. Maybe it pays off; it depends on the terrorists’ goals.
The desire to address this question was the impetus for writing my book The Swords of Wicked Men: Terrorist Attacks on American Soil. Now, years later, as I finish preparing the first draft of the manuscript, I want to reflect on the lessons I have learned and the characters I have encountered during my trek through the dark side of American history.
Terrorism has become a high-profile subject—more so than even in the 1990s when my stepdaughter and I discussed Eric Rudolph. The horrendous events of September 11, 2001, heightened awareness of terrorism unlike any other major catastrophe in American history. It is a date forever enshrined in our national memory. Just as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, are emblazoned on the American psyche, so, too, are the terrorist attacks on symbolic targets in New York City and Washington D.C. and the plane crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Some episodes should never be forgotten.
Yet terrorism is not a new phenomenon, despite increased attention paid to the issue. It has long plagued organized societies. Terrorism, which is defined here as an act of violence or a threat of violence perpetrated by non-state, non-governmental actors against citizens and other non-combatants to achieve one’s objectives, has become an enormous issue of concern, especially in the twenty-first century. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans as well as many citizens around the world have desperately sought assurances that never again will non-combatants be harmed by extremists hell bent on advancing a radical or non-mainstream agenda.
Some political leaders have promised that government policies will be created to “keep Americans safe again.” Indeed, the administration of President George W. Bush justified passage of the controversial Patriot Act and the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay naval base as necessary components of an American “war on terror.” Historians realize, however, that the use of terror tactics is older than the republic. The leaders of a nation can never guarantee the safety and security of citizens. The best they can do is to develop policies and safeguards that minimize the likelihood of a terrorist attack and mitigate the effects after an attack occurs.
The difficulty in fighting terrorism is that the terrorist mindset is poorly understood and numerous motives seem to exist. Occasionally, people are compelled to engage in terrorist acts because ignorance and poverty provide them with few peaceful options, at least in their view of the world. Some religious terrorists embrace violence because they believe the deity will be pleased. Still other explanations suggest that people who are disenfranchised and feel little or no stake in the political, economic, and social system are filled with hate; therefore, they lash out at the groups that they believe have oppressed or aggrieved them. Still other terrorists act as though they were operating a business or corporate enterprise. They have outlined a well-defined mission statement, an overall strategy, and a series of tactics designed to achieve their goals. They engage in fund-raising activities and employ workers with the appropriate skills necessary to fulfill the group’s mandate. Some terrorists are well-educated, competent, rational human beings. In short, terrorists act for many reasons, some of which are difficult to fathom in general and can only be understood in context.
Understanding the context of terrorism necessitates a trek through history, in this case the history of terrorist activity in the United States. Accordingly, a book about terrorism on American soil since the nineteenth century must place terrorism into myriad contexts. Because the topic is large and complex, The Swords of Wicked Men does not purport to be an exhaustive history of terrorism or the definitive account of how and why terrorists do what they do. Rather, the book examines a representative sampling of the most horrific terrorist attacks and seeks to extract the lessons that can be learned from those events.
Some of the representative events discussed in the book, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, the Unabomber’s decades-long campaign of violence, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—and, yes, Eric Rudolph—are well-known to a large percentage of the American public. Other episodes, such as the Mountains Meadows Massacre, the Yellow Fever Plot, and the Los Angeles Times bombing, date from an earlier epoch; consequently, all but the most knowledgeable students of history probably know little or nothing about those attacks.
As an example, consider that many race riots occurred during the Gilded Age, that period between the end of the U.S. Civil War and the early years of the twentieth century. The Swords of Wicked Men focuses on a race riot known as the Colfax Massacre. The selection of this incident is not designed to minimize other riots that occurred or to suggest that all nineteenth century race riots were alike in terms of the causes, the events themselves, the casualties, or the consequences. Instead, the Colfax Massacre is a representative case, just as the other episodes described in the book stand as representatives of larger trends in terrorist activities.
“Terrorism” does not have an agreed-upon definition; therefore, some commentators may choose to include wartime atrocities in the definition. Debates can rage about whether the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 constituted terrorism or whether the forcible removal of the Cherokee Indians along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s was a terrorist act perpetrated by the Jackson and Van Buren administrations against a group of people based solely on their race. To open this door is to raise a host of questions ranging from the use of relocation centers to detain Japanese-Americans during World War II, the FBI’s COINTELPRO "dirty tricks" employed against members of the civil rights movement as well as other groups, and the Bush administration’s reliance on the Patriot Act to detain “enemy combatants” without the benefit of a civilian trial. Although these are important issues worthy of consideration, my book focuses on acts outside of a military situation and exercised by non-state actors against civilians. The only exception to this non-military context is the Yellow Fever plot, but if one considers the Confederate States of America an illegitimate government (as Lincoln did during the Civil War) and if the use of a biological agent is viewed as an indiscriminate weapon that potentially harms non-combatants of all stripes, this episode falls within the definition of terrorism stated here.
A researcher investigating terrorism soon discovers that he will never get to the root causes of, or fashion suitable solutions to, all instances of violent mischief. The best he can do is sift through representative cases and muse over the causes and consequences. By exploring the myriad contexts of attacks on American soil and reflecting on the indicia of terrorism, I hope to suggest the means by which possible solutions can be found. At the very least, by understanding terrorist attacks of the past we can understand the range of possibilities for future terrorist attacks.
Everybody knows about Eric Rudolph, indeed. Maybe that’s true; maybe it’s not. But how many people know about other salient terrorist attacks in American history? Join me in subsequent postings as I look back to a veritable rogues’ gallery of characters and situations that ultimately led to the present state of affairs.