[This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack that occurred on American soil and was perpetrated by attackers who had lived in the US for months if not longer. Whether and how it qualifies as domestic terrorism is a topic I’ll focus on in this weekend post, after a week spent AmericanStudying a handful of other domestic terrorist histories and contexts.]
On what distinguishes and what connects two 21st century terrorist attacks.
First of all, I need to open this post by being very clear that I’m not seeking to minimize in any way the horrors and tragedies, nor indeed any of the realities, of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Not by thinking about them in relationship to domestic terrorism (that is, I’m not even vaguely gesturing at Trutherism or any other such bullshit), and not in any other way either. I certainly agree with this 2012 Kevin Levin article that over time it is important to step back from the most personal and emotional forms of commemoration and to remember even the most tragic events (like the Civil War in his article, or like Pearl Harbor in this prior post of mine) with more nuance and thoughtfulness, and that’s a big part of what I hope to do in this post. But doing so does not require minimizing the tragedies, not for any of those thousands of lives and families and communities affected by the attacks, and not for any and all of the rest of us. Full stop.
So with all that said, the first couple decades of the 21st century have been bookended by two terrorist attacks on the heart of American society and community: the 9/11 attacks (which of course included not just the most famous Manhattan planes but also attacks aimed at the Pentagon and another DC site, either the White House or Capitol); and then this past January’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It’s easy, and important, to differentiate those two attacks in all sorts of ways, not only their drastically different casualty numbers (an important distinction to be sure) but also the very significant difference of the role of an international terrorist organization in planning and orchestrating 9/11. While the U.S. had a complicated but undeniable role in the creation of Al Qaeda, as I wrote about at length in this post (and as could be said of most every international entity of the last century), that doesn’t change the fact that it was a foreign organization, committing what has to be described as an overt act of war against the United States. (Which doesn’t make our military responses to the attacks, nor the broader framework of the “War on Terror” that we have found so hard to leave behind, any smarter or more successful, necessarily; but which is an important context nonetheless.)
But at the same time, I think there is significant value in linking both of these attacks under the umbrella of terrorist attacks on American soil. After all, both of them targeted American political and social institutions with the overt goal of changing the nation’s politics and policies; if anything, the January 6th insurrection did so even more fully, since it targeted an ongoing political action (the authentication of the 2020 presidential election) and sought to disrupt and reverse that Constitutional event through violence. Which is to say, the concept of domestic terrorism isn’t, to my mind, just about who’s committing the actions, although that’s certainly part of it (and doesn’t make the 1/6 attacks look any better, to be sure). It’s also, and equally importantly, about how terrorist attacks can strike at the heart of a nation, at some of its core communities and institutions, at its shared identity and ideals. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it’s worth considering how the 21st century has been dominated by such terrorisms here in the United States, and thinking about what links the far-right movements behind them (at least as much as what differentiates them).
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?