We’ve Defeated Domestic Terror Before and We Can Do It Again
As we think about the recent wave of domestic terror, including the latest shootings in El Paso and Dayton, it’s important to understand that we’ve been down this road before—and we’ve won.
In fact, since the turn of the last century, terroristic violence has come in three big waves; today, we’re in the midst of a fourth. So as we confront this wave, let’s recall how we stopped the last three.
The first wave began in the late 19th century, as political passions ran high amidst mass immigration, mass industrialization, and mass urbanization. In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated by an angry anarchist.
The national response was instructive: in the wake of McKinley’s death, the U.S. Secret Service, originally started to chase down counterfeiters, embraced as its primary mission the protection of the president. And whereas a total of three presidents were murdered in just a 36-year period, between 1865 and 1901, only one has been assassinated in the more than a century since.
Back then, radical-isms had been greatly strengthened by the trauma of World War I. And while terroristic violence was vastly worse in Europe, anarchism and communism took their toll in America. In 1919, followers of the anarchist Luigi Galleani carried out at least three dozen bombings and attempted bombings; targets included John D. Rockefeller, as well as top government officials, including, most fatefully, the attorney general of the United States, A. Mitchell Palmer. The result was heavy state action: the Palmer Raids rousted radicals across the country.
Meanwhile, in September 1920, a bomb went off in front of the New York Stock Exchange, killing 30. Indeed, as strikes and violence spread across the nation, it seemed as if Bolshevism, too, could be spreading. So while the Wilson administration was manifestly cracking down, the public wanted even more cracking.
The result, in November 1920, was the massive landslide victory of the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. The duo pledged a return to “normalcy,” and people believed them. Coolidge, after all, had become a national hero by standing up to the Boston police strikers.
Among the Republican achievements of that era was the hiring, in 1924, of a hard-charging 29-year-old, J. Edgar Hoover, to lead the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation—soon energized and soon to be known as the FBI.
Thus did the worldwide terror wave came to an end. To put it bluntly, good police work and tough tactics—including deportations—defeated terrorism, perhaps even staving off some sort of revolution.
Yet if that first terror wave had come from the left, the second, during the 1930s, came from the right—that is, the rise of fascism. Interestingly, this second wave was mostly thwarted on the home front, thanks to strong government action.
The House Un-American Activities Committee was launched in 1934, aiming to highlight the dangers of fascism. And even as its mission expanded—highlighting the danger of communism as well—HUAC played a useful role, crystallizing public understanding of internal threats.
In that vein, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Foreign Agent Registration Act in 1938, requiring those residing in the U.S. and working for foreign powers to register with Uncle Sam and disclose their activities. FARA was, and is, useful legislation (it needs to be more vigorously enforced today). Two years later, in 1940, FDR signed the Alien Registration Act, better known as the Smith Act, aimed at further monitoring non-citizen residents.
With such robust enforcement mechanisms in place—including the FBI, which was at the peak of its effectiveness—Uncle Sam made short work of would-be terrorists. In June 1942, eight Nazi German saboteurs crept onto American shores via U-boat—and were caught almost immediately. Indeed, within two months, six of them had been executed, and the other two sentenced to long prison terms.
A third terror wave came in the late ’60s and early ’70s, perpetrated by student radicals and other opportunistic hangers-on. In just the years 1971 and 1972, the nation suffered some 2,500 bombings. Admittedly, many of these explosions were small and symbolic, yet a bomb is still a bomb.
In the meantime, other groups, not students, jumped in with violence of their own. This included the Black Panthers, a horde of skyjackers, and Charles Manson’s murderous “family.”
Once again, the nation responded: the police were beefed up, private security companies multiplied, metal detectors were installed, and, yes, the FBI continued to do good work.
These suppressions of terror brought with them plenty of controversy—much of it focused on the FBI. Notably, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was formed in 1920 in response to the Palmer Raids, and then and since, it hasn’t countenanced anyone’s being beastly to radicals, even dangerous radicals. As for Hoover and HUAC, the backlash against their activities—most notably the Hollywood blacklist—is the stuff of ever-unspooling movie mythmaking.
Okay, so now we’re in a fourth wave of domestic terror, which might be said to have begun with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 innocents. As an aside, we can observe that this mass killing, perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh and a few co-conspirators, resembles the particle-ized warfare described by William Lind (a sometime TAC contributor) and four co-authors back in 1989. And that sort of warfare has also covered international terror, including the disaster of 9/11.
Still, given the subject at hand, let’s not elide the point that the greatest casualties in the last years since 9/11 have come from home-grown terrorists. And yes, let’s say it plainly: McVeigh was a white supremacist, as were the recent killers in Pittsburgh, Poway, and El Paso.
Taking note of such supremacism around the world, The New York Times reports: “At least a third of white extremist killers since 2011 were inspired by others who perpetrated similar attacks, professed a reverence for them or showed an interest in their tactics.”
Of course, to say that a third of such attacks were the result of white nationalism is to concede that two thirds were not. Notably, the killers at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and, most recently, Dayton, were motivated by other depraved belief systems, including on the far left.
To be sure, it might seem to the casual news consumer that right-wing white nationalism accounts for the bulk of such shootings. Why? Perhaps because the media has a tendency toward attributing right-wing motives to every shooter, then reluctantly walking back the labeling over as long a period as possible. That was the case, for instance, after the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Early reports portrayed the shooter as a talk radio fan; only later did we learn that he was simply, deeply crazy.
Just on August 5, President Trump declared that the Justice Department, including the FBI, would mobilize against domestic terrorism, and specifically named “white supremacy” as one of the targets. As the 45th president put it, “Federal authorities are on the ground, and I have directed them to provide any and all assistance required—whatever is needed.”
Needless to say, if Trump does it, whatever it is, many will be opposed, even mortified. And so Trump’s invocation of the death penalty—“this capital punishment [will] be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay”—as well as his suggestion that we examine “gruesome and grisly video games,” generated instant pushback. And a further storm will likely come when the ACLU and Silicon Valley lobbyists react to any formal Trump plan for scrutinizing “the dark recesses of the Internet.”
Still, history tells us that this country, now numbering 327 million, blessed with so many resources and so much brainpower, can overwhelm a few thousand creeps and potentially violent criminals. Just as we snuffed out anarchists, fascists, and leftist radicals over the past century, so, too, can we snuff out these new evildoers. Why, maybe the Department of Defense could even find some “monsters to destroy” right here in America.
Yes, we can prevail, unless we let ourselves be distracted. That is, if we lose the focus on stopping terror because we turn our energy instead into expressions of rage at Trump and society as a whole, then the counterterror effort will devolve into even more fractious futility.
After all, for a noisy and vociferous group, it’s vastly more satisfying to smear millions of Americans—perhaps a majority of Americans, as well as Judeo-Christianity, Western Civilization, etc.—with their usual hate-brush than it is to think about actually stopping hate-killers. And let’s not forget the eternal liberal goal of gun control, even gun confiscation. Lotsa luck grabbing, or even trying to buy, 390 million shootin’ irons.
In the meantime, Trump has put himself squarely in the tradition of tough-minded federal counterterrorism action, in keeping with his no-nonsense approach to crime overall.
It’s up to the Democrats now to articulate their own counterterrorism policy. We know that they despise the incumbent; indeed, Beto O’Rourke just went there, comparing Trump to Hitler. But do they disagree with Trump on tough new law-and-order measures, including the death penalty, for the El Paso shooter?
If so, what better ideas do they have?
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.