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Historical view: America has dealt with terror before

Discussion / Activity

September 19, 2001 Posted: 8:52 AM EDT (1252 GMT)
Smoke filters up from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. (NEW YORK CITY OFFICE OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT)  

By Helyn Trickey

(CNN) -- United States history books will have to be rewritten as the full impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks sinks in.

Pearl Harbor, the 1941 surprise attack, long touted as the most devastating assault on American soil in U.S. history, will likely lose that title.

More than 2,400 people died at Pearl Harbor, most of them military personnel. The death toll this time around is still rising. The number of missing and presumed dead is above 5,000. Most of the dead are civilians, and the loss of thousands of people going about their daily lives is terrifying. But that is just what terrorism is meant to do. By definition, it is the purposeful use of intense fear or anxiety, especially as a means of coercion.

Recent terrorism attacks targeting the United States
Sorting fact from fiction in 'Pearl Harbor'  

In the case of last week's aggression, the near-simultaneous hijacking of four commercial planes and the number of civilian casualties is unique in the history of terrorism, says David C. Rapoport, professor of political science at University of California in Los Angeles, California.

He sees a parallel to Pearl Harbor, which rallied a nation to fight.

This latest attack may galvanize America in a similar fashion. While the ambush may not have been an attack on the military, it was a strike at the heart of the world's center of commerce.

The USS Shaw explodes during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor  

It is not the first time capitalism has been a target.

Anarchists and assassination

Almost 100 years ago, President William McKinley was shot twice as he was shaking hands with a crowd at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He died eight days later. The man who shot McKinley was identified as a deranged member of the Anarchist movement in America.

The Anarchists were a group of people who believed there should be no organized government or powerful institutions. Rather, they advocated society should be organized voluntarily, with groups of people working together cooperatively.

The reaction following McKinley's killing mirrors the national mood today, as waves of panic gripped American people. Their fear turned into anger, much of it directed at the Anarchists.

William McKinley  

That group, much like today's terrorists, was hard to immediately identify, says Richard Bach Jensen, associate professor of history at Louisiana Scholars College at Northwestern State University in Louisiana.

Russia and Germany had long been dogged by anarchist terrorist movements and tried to rally American support for an international anti-anarchist campaign. President Theodore Roosevelt supported those efforts, and asked Congress for help.

"Congress was just too isolationist, and then after about a year the anger died down and the movement to join world efforts to quell Anarchists was dropped," Jensen says.

Then, in 1920, the radical group bombed the center of capitalism and commerce: Wall Street.

On September 16 that year, a horse-dawn carriage carrying dynamite rolled to a stop in front of the Morgan Bank in lower Manhattan. The blast that ensued claimed over 30 lives and injured hundreds more. Despite the devastating explosion, Wall Street was back to business the following day.

Financial markets may have recovered quickly, but the attack bruised the U.S. government's ego, and it immediately began rounding up suspected Anarchists.

"The government targeted immigrants and socialists," says Martin Miller, a professor of history and a terrorist expert at Duke University in North Carolina. Many of the thousands of people detained in the dragnet had nothing to do with the Wall Street bombing. The government eventually deported 300 people, he says.

Blaming outsiders for an imagined threat is nothing new. Following Pearl Harbor, federal officials quickly bundled off more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps around the nation, the historians note.

The same reaction is possible today, says Miller. "It worries me that the liberties of people are at risk," he says. "It's a moment when we need answers desperately."

Rapoport agrees. "People need to know about the consequences of our rage," he says.

Weekly Activities:
Updated September 21, 2002

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