This Is What Terrorism In America Really Looks Like

Pete Trumbore looks at US home-grown terrorism. Professor Peter Trumbore blogs @ Observation / Research / Diversions.

Briar Creek Road Baptist Church burns in Charlotte, N.C., in the predawn hours of June 24.

Black churches are burning again.

If you want to know what terrorism in America actually looks like you need cast your gaze no further than the charred ruins of the half dozen predominantly African-American churches that went up in flames in the week following the mass killing at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

While our popular imagination conjures up images of self-radicalized ISIS wannabes around every street corner, historically American terrorism is more likely to look like the image above than it is black-clad militants marching behind jihadi banners.

While an ATF investigation has so far found no evidence that these six fires are either related to each other or even racially motivated, such has not always been the case. In the 1960s and again in the 1990s, waves of arson and bombings targeted black churches across the South. It is the memory of those attacks, and the fact that they come on the heels of Charleston, that has led to the fear that the recent spate of burnings represented a resumption of white supremacist terrorism.

These incidents are a reminder that, with a few notable exceptions, and a single extraordinary one on Sept. 11, 2001, the story of terrorism in the United States has long been one of Americans using violence against Americans in support of causes or in the pursuit of goals that are embraced by yet other Americans. From New Left revolution, anti-war, and black liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, to anti-abortion fervor and radical environmentalism in the 1980s and 1990s, and racial hatred throughout, American terrorism typically has been truly all-American.

This ought not surprise us.* Public opinion surveys conducted in 1981, in 1995, and in 2000 found that Americans, while unreservedly condemning terrorists as a category, were unwilling to reject the use of violence as a tool of political change. In the 1981 study, 15 percent of those surveyed said there were circumstances when terrorism could be justified. That percentage stood at 17 percent in the 1995 study and rose as high as 26 percent in 2000.

What the above signals is that there are likely mitigating qualities that some Americans see in terrorism and terrorist actions that allows them on the one hand to categorically abhor terrorism and terrorists yet simultaneously claim that terrorism may be justifiable. Even after 9/11 public opinion surveys provide evidence that suggests that meaningful percentages of Americans continue to hold sympathetic attitudes toward some terrorist organizations.

Here is one astonishing example of Americans’ attitudes about terrorism that is worth thinking about. Six months after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and wounding another 800, the public was asked whether they had a positive, neutral, or negative attitude toward McVeigh. A startling 5 percent of respondents said they had a very positive or somewhat positive view of McVeigh, while 12 percent reported that they had neutral feelings about the individual who was responsible for carrying out what was at the time the single deadliest act of terrorism ever on American soil.

We need to remember, as we approach the Fourth of July holiday, that the face of American terrorism looks a lot more like Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof than Osama bin Laden or Mohamed Atta.

*I wrote and presented a paper on this at a conference in 2009 at the University of Missouri. The piece is unpublished, and desperately in need of updating, but you can download and read a copy here.


  1. Peter, I like your articles, certainly difficult subjects.

    Specifically with the OKC attack, it cant be understood with reference to Waco exactly 2 years prior. That is not to mitigate, but that would be the context in which %5 had positive feelings toward him. (Similarly the 'Corperal Killings' brutality cannot be understood without referencing Miltown)

  2. Thanks Daithi. I'd agree that Waco, and Ruby Ridge, and other cases played a role in radicalizing McVeigh and others on the American far right. That said, it was still a big surprise to find so many who had a favorable or neutral view of him in light of the huge number of fatalities and injuries.

    I guess the larger point is one that I try to convey to my students when I teach on terrorism -- we make a huge mistake when we, as Americans, assume that terrorism is something that "those people" do to "us." Instead, it is something we have long done to ourselves, and each other. We have no sympathy for terrorists, unless we agree with them.

  3. Peter, It would be interesting to establish what those who voted viewed as McVeighs target. For some, he is a person that attacked a building knowing a day care center was in there, for others he struck at the ATF, and ingore the collateral (like the ATF did/do).
    Its strange that you have to teach that about terrorism to Americans Peter, the founder of your nation was the Bin Laden of his day!

  4. The equivalent of Bin Laden? I wouldn't go that far. The equivalent of Menachem Begin, certainly many of our founders would fit that bill. As I tell my students, by modern definitions, the Sons of Liberty, patriots all, would today be classified as terrorists. But as we know, history is written by the victors.

  5. But as we know, history is written by the victors.

    Although Sinn Fein do their damnedest to be the exception to that rule...

  6. Peter

    I agree that we Americans have a much more ambivalent attitude toward "terrorists" than many in this country would like to acknowledge or admit. As the old saw goes, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. The survey results that you note make me think about my own running debates with my wife about American perceptions of the Provisional IRA, specifically (I can count on one hand the number of Americans who know about the split: OIRA, what's that?). Peter, what's your impression of American attitudes toward the IRA: mostly ambivalent, mostly confused, slightly or grossly romanticized? Have any academic studies ever been done on this very subject?

    I would contend that the IRA gets a warm hug from those who root for an underdog and do not have an aversion to violence in the abstract. As white and Christian (mostly), Provos probably get slack where Muslims of the Middle East and Asia would not. Of course, outside of Boston and New York, familiarity with the history of PIRA and the nuances of the Troubles is almost non-existent. At least this has been my impression - I'm a Kentuckian who studied at Queen's and regularly visits a cousin and friends in both parts of Ireland. Peter, what's your anecdotal impression of how Californians see the IRA, at present and before the GFA? I'm curious about how the Provos are seen on the West Coast.


    By founder of the United States, do you mean George Washington, or the other founding fathers as well (e.g. Jefferson and Adams)? That patrician Virginian in a cave or compound with an AK47, can't really picture that, but yes it's true they were both stinking rich and had many enslaved servants.

  7. Hi Michael,

    Let me first clarify that I'm not in California, despite my university name. Oakland University is a state university of 20,000 students in metro Detroit, in northern Oakland County, Michigan. So my perceptions of the West Coast aren't going to be of much help.

    As for attitudes about the IRA today, for those who have heard of it and don't have a vested interest, my experience is that those are shaped largely by popular entertainment, movies and the like. So the gross stereotypes tend to be either romanticized and sympathetic images or seeing IRA members as murderous psychopaths. There's little of the middle ground, at least that I've noticed. My students, for example, have virtually no knowledge of the IRA or The Troubles. They are astonished to see the news footage I use in the classroom, and if I read them right, my students seem to be largely sympathetic to the idea of IRA as a national liberation movement.

    That said, they are especially surprised when I diagram the splits in the IRA and its successors since 1921 and try to explain the rationale behind each division. And the relationships between armed and unarmed Republican groups.

    One of the things I've spent some time trying to understand have been the divisions within Irish-America and how they mirror the splits in the Republican Movement back in NI. They are very close. Those who have stuck with Sinn Fein are extremely loyal and highly resistant to any criticism of the party, its leadership, or the political direction it has taken over the last 15-20 years. You can find them in Friends of Sinn Fein, in what's left of Noraid, and some other places.

    Those who have broken with the Republican Movement offer the same types of criticisms, objections, and critical analysis that you will hear from the so-called Republican dissident groups in the North. You can find them in the Irish Freedom Committee and Friends of Irish Freedom, among other groups.

    There are others who frequently comment here at TPQ who can speak more directly to the broader point about how Americans view the IRA and its various divisions today.

  8. Michael, I was parodying how he was presented in the British Press, being the progenitor of the Republican vs Loyalist conflict etc. PS I have a sister living in Kentucky (Goshen), my encounters with Americans there (and Wisconsin and Missouri) revealed a healthy view on a citizens right to wield violence against the state.

  9. DaithiD

    I teach at a school in Goshen, Kentucky, a school that I attended through eighth grade. Nearly fell out my chair when I read your comment - it's a small world indeed. My wife Graciela, our two kids, and I live in Prospect just five miles from Goshen. Here's hoping that we cross paths with your sister somewhere along US 42. As for that Washington fella, you were right to parody such a comparison. George loved England with nearly every step he took. He and his pals just wanted more of it for themselves. The smiling patrician class here in the states, unchanged and still in charge, walk in his footsteps with assurance and glee.

    We Americans still love to talk about how the minutemen and such were guerillas who sniped at the lobsterbacks from behind trees, but that was a natural extension of shooting game in the woods (militarily prudent too it must be said) and George certainly never participated in anything resembling guerilla warfare. So yeah, flabby Brtish press. Washington was neither Osama bin Laden nor Che Guevara. Nor was he Francis Hughes or Dominic McGlinchey. Maybe we can have a Second Amendment discussion another day. Big can of worms over here as you know too well. Goshen, Kentucky. I know that wee place.

  10. Peter

    Thank you so much for your observations, and I completely agree that popular culture, and film in particular, has shaped American perceptions of the IRA. In his book Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA, Richard English describes the extremes that Hollywood and Co. have chosen to portray, obviously because romantic heroes and psychopaths have enduring dramatic potential. All about that audience. The middle ground, represented in a sense by someone like Stephen Rae in The Crying Game, is as you say sparsely represented. Interestingly, Michael Fassbender's Bobby Sands in Hunger might be seen as somewhere between the extremes in the states but certainly not in Northern Ireland. When I suggested that Hunger was a beautifully made film even without the dialogue, a Unionist friend of mine from Queen's went into a rabid orange froth. He called the film unmitigated propaganda, its political agenda barely concealed by art house pretension. This vitriolic response was slightly disappointing as it came from a person who has co-authored books meant to seek an objective plain with Paul Bew.

    Peter, the parallels that you see between hues of republican on both sides of the pond are quite interesting, and not at all surprising really. The shrinking rump of Noraid must go into a red sweaty fit when anyone challenges the old narrative of the hunger strikes. They are shackled by the hobgoblins of their foolish consistencies, at least the evidence suggests as much. There is not one person that I know in West Belfast among old friends and their family members that has a good word to say about Gerry, Danny and Martin. They are almost uniformly dissident of mind and while not always pro-Provo, they hold up Brendan Hughes as the shining hero of the Falls and of republicanism in general.

    Thanks again Peter. I also learned that Oakland University is in Michigan. Der. My American cousin who is married to a Dub is from Detroit. I've really enjoyed reading your pieces on the Quill and look forward to future exchanges. Take good care.

  11. Small world indeed Michael.

    Washington was neither Osama bin Laden nor Che Guevara. Nor was he Francis Hughes or Dominic McGlinchey....

    Well since both have a surname related to the captial city of their country, maybe we could say Washington was the Baghdadi of his day. Haha.

  12. DaithiD, Peter, AM, et al

    Baghdadi, good one Daithi, yep like Big Daddy smelling mendacity up in his house and all over the land. Maybe smelling his own too. Bag Man George, one of the gang that set us free, from the fawning and the Crown, well safe across the sea.

    AM, what was your impression of how the IRA and the people of the Falls Road were portrayed in the film 1971? I haven't seen it yet. The film was here for maybe two days and then gone - hoping for a DVD release soon.

    By the way, and this is a question for all, where are we in the investigations of the recent church burnings? Last I heard, and some digging needed today by lazy me, two were ruled arson but not necessarily hate crimes while one could have been caused by lightning. We have had some fierce storms here in the Deep and Upper South this summer, rain galore. The New York Times did run a story last week that tried to check a rush to judgment.

    As for the Confederate battle flag, a controversy which Peter wrote about last week, I have all kinds of mixed feelings. I'm glad my ancestors helped in their small way to put down the rebellion. It warms the heart to know that my great great uncle Wm. Joseph Mahoney stayed true to the Roman Catholic Irish camp and joined a Union regiment in border state Kentucky. But there are a good many people in the South (not yahoos or Klansmen) who have ancestors who got caught up in the maelstrom, many of them fodder for planter interests. These southern soldiers and their families probably didn't see the flag at the time as an emblem of white supremacy. Granted, poison has saturated that flag, it's true, and from the public grounds it must go, but here's hoping the battle flag can have a discrete place in Civil War cemeteries, in museums and in the smoke of re-enactments. If that remains too provocative and hateful, the original Confederate flag with the big bars and a ring of stars on a blue field should have a kind of resurrection for the sake of compromise.

    Any links to church burning news much appreciated.

  13. Michael, there really isn't anything new on the church burnings beyond what I mentioned in this post. Both the ATF and FBI have investigated. Here's a link to the most up-to-date article that I've seen. It's from CNN last week.

    On another point you raise above, I seem to recall that several people (maybe Anthony as well) posted here at TPQ reflections on '71 when it came out. I just watched it last night for the first time. I found the portrayal of the complex murkiness and tangled relations between the various groups (OIRA, PIRA, MRF, Army, UVF/UDA, regular nationalists, etc.) pretty interesting. My impression is that it captured a feel for the "truth" of the time and place even if not literally "true," but I can't speak to the experience of those who lived through and personally experienced those things.

  14. Mike,

    my memory of the movie is that it was for the most part sparsely populated. There was a riot scene but apart from that the community was glimpsed through individuals.

    My take
    and Beano Niblock's take

  15. Michael, In terms of themes and moods, Ive always thought the Crying Game (one scene in particular) fortold the shock and trauma of what was to come to the Republican Movement.It would probably make a good essay.

  16. Peter, AM and Daithi

    Thank you all for your feedback, much appreciated. Yes Daithi, The Crying Game is truly prophetic and while many focus on its second part, I've always found the Fergus and British soldier segment more interesting and affecting.

    Peter and Anthony, you make me even more impatient to see '71. The missus has me stuck doing bathroom remodelling this week (painting and more painting, my enduring penance), but the end is near! I will resume my search for a DVD copy or venue with all haste.

    On my first visit to Belfast 25 years ago this summer, I was stopped along with two photographers by an RUC/army patrol at the corner of Broadway and the Falls right across from The Beehive. The RUC men weren't at all pleased with the photographers' cavalier activity and told them as much. The heads of two locals popped out of a door there on Broadway. They signalled us over and when the patrol proceeded, satisfied that we were just three stupid Americans, we were welcomed into the stangers' house. Mugs of tea and cigarettes came at us like a sudden shower. I've been good pals with the family ever since.

    The man of the family grew up in the Lower Falls, became a republican by way of trade unionism, and vividly recalls all that occurred in the days of the early Troubles in the shadows of St. Peter's Cathedral. His letters to me over all these years are a telling record of the 'peace process' years. It'll be interesting to hear what he has to say about the film '71 too. I'll definitely have a read of the Quill piece on the film this evening (thanks fellas). All the best from soaked and soggy Kentucky.