Jun 5, 2018
category: History


There are various definitions and descriptions related to the term terrorism. Many anti terror agencies in the United States as well as other organisations in the world have not come up with a common definition of this term. However, all agree that it involves the use of violence and threats to inspire fear in order to perpetuate a certain ideology which can be political, religious, and/or social among others. The term terrorist is derived from the word terror which means fear.

Terrorists (people involved in committing acts of terror) have been seen to have some common aspects. They often target unarmed groups and non-combatants who in most cases are civilians and neutral army. Additionally, they purport to represent a certain group of people which they can’t show. Another common trend is that they try to infiltrate available systems and fight from within.

Terrorism is not a new concept; the earliest acts that can be described as acts of terrorism date back to the first century AD and are related to a group of people referred to as the Zealots of Judea. These people were described by the Romans as dagger men who carried out secret campaigns and slowly assassinated Romans. They were also belied to have assassinated Jewish leaders who, as they thought, collaborated with the Roman (Lutz & Lutz, 2005). However, the following and present-day forms of terrorism seem to lack any form of a positive motive. Scholars argue that zealots were probably fighting for their survival due to the oppressive Roman rule. Present-day terrorism, however, seems to be only aimed at destruction of life and property without any justifiable reason. Nevertheless, terrorism is thought to have evolved from Zealots.

The Beginning of Terrorism in the U.S

Due to lack of a conclusive definition of the term terrorism as well as a range of actions and activities that can be classified as terrorism, it is rather challenging to state exactly when and where the first terrorist attack happened in the US. This makes it particularly difficult to pinpoint or single out one event as an act of terrorism. For instance, some scholars argue that the first ever terrorist attack in the US happened on November 7th, 1837 when Elijah P Lovejoy, slavery abolitionist, was killed by a pro-slavery mob.

Later, in 1856, a group of abolitionists led by John Brown murdered five pro-slavery people in Kansas in an event which is now referred to as Pattowatomie Massacre. Abolitionists did this as an act of revenge due to several attacks made by the pro-slavery people. They hoped it would deter pro-slavery from carrying out further attacks. However, most scholars and analysts agree that the first terrorist attack in the US was the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre on 14th of April, 1865. This assassination was enough to wreak terror in all other outspoken slavery abolitionists in the US. Additionally, had the whole conspiracy succeeded, the vice-president and the secretary of state would have been eliminated as well. By doing this, the ‘terrorists’ would have caused enough terror to overthrow the federal government. However, they succeeded in watering down the spirit of abolitionists and slowing down the rate of anti-slavery movement.

From the three events mentioned above, it’s possible to say that terrorism in the United State started in the early to the mid nineteenth century. This is a period during which some people felt a need to use fear to drive their motive and ideology. It is important to note that a legitimate way of bringing change in the American system was through a public vote or through other legal procedures outlined in the US constitution. The above statement justifies that the acts such as the assassination of abolitionists in order to intimidate other abolitionists and force them to abandon their course were indeed terror activities. This culminated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by pro-slavery leaders. It is argued that this was a major setback for the abolitionists even though they chose to remain focused on the achievement of their objective (Lutz & Lutz, 2005).

Other terrorist events include the Haymarket affair in Chicago when an unidentified person detonated a bomb killing a police officer and injuring several civilians. This event prompted protests and even more shooting; as a result seven police officers were killed and almost one hundred were injured.

Some people fail to classify all the above events as terrorist activities due to the general belief that terrorist activities are only those which are not motivated by ideologies of American people. According to them, the first terrorist attack in America is the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosc in New York on September,6th, 1901. According to them, the assailant was a Russian-polish man who was propagating a state of anarchy which is not an ideology of American people. So they conclude that he can be seen as the first ‘real terrorist’ in America (Crenshaw, 1995).

The Prime Motivators of Terrorists throughout U.S. History

The motive of the terrorists throughout the American history has been very clear and common. All of them seem to have been fighting a losing battle. They all seem to have been supporting a course that was unpopular and which could not survive in the American democracy. One of such examples is the pro-slavery groups who organized themselves in groups to attack slavery abolitionists. They knew that the ideology of slavery had become unpopular among the masses and had to be done away with. Due to this, they had to employ desperate means such as terror in order to intimidate abolitionists.

A good example of this is Abraham Lincoln`s assassination. The pro-slavery group thought that by killing one strong and vocal abolitionist, all the rest would be intimidated and probably abandon their course. This was followed by the creation of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization which aimed at intimidating abolitionists and black people in order to prevent them from opposing slavery. Another group of terrorists can be seen as people who had ideologies that were not American in origin. Such may include anarchists, communists and Islamic extremists.

One of the terrorists popular in the twentieth century was Leon Czolgosc, Russian-polish anarchist, born and raised in Michigan. The motive of this terrorist was to promote anarchism in the United States. For some reason, he and others at his time saw propagation of anarchism in the US a tall order using the vote and other legitimate procedures. So he imagined that by killing the president, law and order would be automatically replaced by self-rule.

The above scenarios are seen in the most part of the twentieth century when anarchist and other groups were seen to attack various public places such as the Wall Street. Their motive seems to be to create some form of unrest among the public in order to force the government to adopt such ideologies (Anzovin, 1986). Many people reason that such attacks would intimidate the masses making them adopt such ideas while others think that the government’s reaction to such people may have been extreme which might cause masses to sympathize with the terrorists hence advancing their (terrorists’) course.

The motive of Muslim extremists seems to be forcing people to adopt Islam through intimidation. This coincides with the mode of operation of other terrorists in that intimidation is at the center of their campaigns. Others terrorists try to express their dislike to American democracy and its widespread adoption in the world. It is important that America is viewed by the world as the symbol of order and democracy. All the terrorist groups have a common motive to punish the USA for being a symbol of order, equality and freedom as opposed to anarchy and dictatorship which is the course advanced by terrorists.

Types of Terror Methods and Technology that Have Been Used and their Purpose

Methods used by terrorists have a lot in common. Throughout the history of the USA, terrorists used to shoot, burn down or explode their targets. Shooting is a mode that has been commonly adopted by assassins. The reason for choosing this mode is because of its speed. It is very easy to use it and the results are almost assured while still having remarkable accuracy. It is also important to note that it is the only mode of killing available with the combination of all the above advantages while still being cheap (Anzovin, 1986).

On the other hand, terrorists burn down a target in order to show extreme anger and malice. This mode was adopted by pro-slavery terrorists and even the Ku Klux Klan. Fire is a cruel and painful way of killing and therefore it was used to create a lot of fear among the abolitionists especially due to indiscriminate and vast damage that it causes. With time, the extent of fire damage could be reduced through efficient fire fighting mechanisms. And still, gun laws became stricter limiting gun access to potentially dangerous people. Additionally, the clip capacity and calibre reduced over time. For this reason, terrorists had to invent or adopt a method that was very efficient, scary and devastating.

For this reason, the use of bombs and explosives became very popular among terrorists. Since the Haymarket explosion in Chicago, Wall Street bombing and the World Trade Center attack, terrorist have devised the most explosive materials and methods to kill, maim and destroy life and property.

The reason of using bombs and explosive is to cause mayhem in the shortest time possible and to minimize the possibility of the process being stopped; explosions happen in split second and people are left reckoning the loss. Explosions are the modern way of burning down. However, they are very first and devastating and nothing can be done once the explosion has begun. Explosives and explosions also destroy structures and symbols that are well saved in people`s mind (Laqueur, 2011). For that reason, their use causes a great trauma even to people who are not primarily affected by the explosion. The destroyed structures and symbols such as the World Trade Center on September 11 become a constant reminder to people whose lives were touched in any way as well as those who knew the magnificence of that structure (symbol) before the attack. Terrorists use this method to permanently affect people’s lives in a profoundly adverse way.

The Common Themes and/or Unique Characteristics from Previous Terror Events in History around the World that Have Been Used in the U.S.

One common theme of terrorists around the world as well as the US is that they use fear to popularize the ideologies of the minority. One characteristic of these ideologies is that they are extreme and are meant to benefit only a few. An example of such ideologies is anarchy which favors the elite.

Another popular theme is that they often use destruction property to advance their agenda. Killing and destruction of property become the main aspect of their campaigns; they usually kill unarmed innocent people, especially civilians. They show no tolerance to people with different opinions. Their primary motive seems to be the unification of the whole population under their ideology. All terrorists throughout the history have shown some commonality in assassination or elimination of leaders. This characteristic is seen in the earliest form of terrorism when Zealots killed leaders of Roman military as well as Jewish leaders that were seen to collaborate with them. This is seen with the killing of Abraham Lincoln by a supporter of pro -slavery and William McKinley by an anarchist.

However, in the nineteenth century, the form of terrorism seen in America is distinctly different from any other form in the world. This is because both the terrorists and the victims are Americans. It is easy to see that this form of terrorism in America is done by groups of people who felt more Americans than their victims or by people who were seeking for ‘recognition’. For this reason, some abolitionists used terror against their pro-slavery fellows. Abolitionists carried out attacks to seek revenge or to intimidate their opponents. On the other hand, the pro-slavery group used terror toward the abolitionists with an aim of making them abandon their course of action.

Another unique characteristic of terror activities in the recent history is that the main terrorists’ motive is to teach the USA a lesson or to ‘revenge’ for crimes that cannot be quantified or descried. The motive of the Zealots was to survive. They hoped to defeat the Romans with a view to enhance their chances of survival. However, the twentieth century has seen the US attacked for the reason of intimidating the world. Today the terrorists seem to be interested in affecting the global political balance through gaining more relevance through their actions. This has made the USA swing into action to fight potential terrorists and their financiers and sympathizers.


In conclusion, the US as well as the whole globe is now faced with a more eminent terror threat than ever before. The terrorists have become more and more sophisticated and have obtained many sympathizers in the modern world. The reasons and motives of terrorists are various and some seems to join terrorists even before deciding what to do with it. The US is probably the country with longest history of the struggle against terrorism both internally and externally (Crenshaw, 1995).

However, the country has been able to rise above the devastating acts of terrorism. One of the landmark terrorist activities in the US is 9/11. The Americans reacted to this in a better way than they did to any other attack before. They stood united against the terrorists which helped the government track the terrorists down.

The previous response of American people to a terrorist attack involved demonstrations and sometimes revenge on the suspected perpetrators. This worsened the situation and the number of acts of lawlessness increased in a profound way. This characteristic was seen in the nineteenth century. However, the authorities have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to contain the public as well as to bring the culprits to book over the years. This has inspired incredible public confidence as well as restraint to a point where the worst attack in 2001 left the public calm and confident that the criminals would be found and punished.


  1. Anzovin, S. (Ed.). (1986). Terrorism. New York: H.W. Wilson.
  2. Crenshaw, M. (Ed.). (1995). Terrorism in context. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  3. Laqueur, W. (2011). A History of Terrorism. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  4. Lutz, B. J., & Lutz, J. M. (2005). Terrorism: Origins and Evolution. New York, NY: Palgrave.

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