Historical Review

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Home Up Executive Summary Military Personnel and Domestic Terrorism Historical Review Contemporary Domestic Terrorism Rising Trends of Concern Conclusion Bibliography



From LCDR Steven Mack Presley, MSC, USN, Rise of Domestic Terrorism and Its Relation to United States Armed Forces (April 19, 1996)

Domestic terrorism has existed and influenced the political and social structure of the United States, to varying degrees, since this country's inception. To be able to quantify the extent to which domestic terrorism has existed in our country, and to qualify the degree to which it has influenced our history, the definition of domestic terrorism must first be clarified. Initial usage of the terms 'terrorism' and 'terrorist' occurred during the French Revolution in a positive-sense reference to the actions of the Jacobins.(2) These words have since been used to denote a wide array of negative and violent actions against governments and societies.(3) The United States Department of Justice defines domestic terrorism as:

The unlawful use of force or violence, committed by a group(s) of two or more individuals, against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.(4)

Although the definition is relatively clear in its meaning, often a case-by-case interpretation is necessary to determine where extremism ends and terrorism begins. An interesting compilation of different definitions of domestic terrorism are provided in Appendix A.

When studying domestic terrorism and trying to understand the intricacies and motivations that characterize such organizations, it is difficult to clearly differentiate an extremist group from a terrorist group, even though superficially the use of violence seems to be an adequate point for division. A more succinct differentiation between extremism and terrorism is apparent in the realization that the former is not unusual in any political environment, and is normally controlled by civil discourse, education, societal pressures, and the law. Terrorism, on the other hand, due to its violence is far beyond control by civil, educational or societal elements and must be pursued and punished by law enforcement agencies. The Dictionary of Political Thought defines "extremism" as:

A vague term, which can mean: 1) Taking a political idea to its limits, regardless of 'unfortunate' repercussions, impracticalities, arguments and feelings to the contrary, and with the intention not only to confront, but also to eliminate opposition. 2) Intolerance towards all views other than one's own. 3) Adoption of means to political ends which show disregard for the life, liberty, and human rights of others.(5)

Frank G. McGuire, a renowned expert on domestic terrorist groups, further expands on the characterization of extremist traits in his summation that they have three things in common. First, extremists commonly represent some attempt to distort reality for themselves and others. Secondly, they try to discourage critical examination of their beliefs, either by false logic, rhetorical trickery or some kind of intimidation. And finally, extremists represent an attempt to act out private, personal grudges or rationalize the pursuit of special interests in the name of the public welfare.(6) The difficulty in clearly separating terrorism and extremism is that in numerous instances, domestic groups which are ostensibly law-abiding presently, may be planning violent actions in the future. Most violent groups began as non-violent discussion or protest movements with high ideals, and as time elapsed they evolved into something else. For this paper, the focus will be primarily on groups that have utilized violence to further their ambitions (terrorists), as well as upon organizations that intimidate through threats of violence, or are known to be planning violence in attaining their goals (extremists).

Even though the term "terrorism" was not in common usage in reference to a strategy or means of achieving political ends until the late eighteenth century, the actual practice can be traced to the Sicarii religious sect activities during the Zealot struggles in Palestine during the period 66-73 A.D.(7) In actuality, terrorism has been used throughout history in a wide variety of applications, usually as a singular element of an overall strategy. From labor disputes, peasant wars and brigandage, to general warfare, civil wars, revolutionary wars, wars of national liberation and resistance movements against foreign occupiers, the systematic use of terror has been present worldwide, including within the United States. A relatively thorough historical review of the evolution and employment of terrorism is provided by Walter Laqueur of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, D.C.) in his book, Terrorism.(8) He discusses how terrorism has evolved from its original purpose as a means of eliminating specific individuals from government or society, to its present status as a means by which weaker states and non-states can wage war against far more powerful conventional forces of their enemies. Bard O'Neill, an authority on contemporary insurgency and terrorism issues, classifies terrorism as one of three warfare strategies. Its comparative effectiveness with regard to the other two strategies, guerrilla warfare and mobile-conventional warfare, is largely dependent on environmental, cultural, economic, and the moral dimensions of the conflict or political struggle.(9)

Historically there have been limited cases or incidents of domestic terrorism in which active duty military personnel have been involved or implicated, most probably due to the rigid structure and character of the military environment. Based upon the Department of Justice definition of domestic terrorism--which may well be a poor one--, it is plausible to characterize the actions leading up to the very creation of the United States of America as incidents of terrorism directed against the government of the British Crown. Along this same vein of logic, it is plausible to characterize the soldiers of the first revolutionary armies, at least prior to the formal Declaration of Independence, as participating in terroristic activities to achieve political goals.(10) A more accurate and realistic definition of the currently accepted use of the word 'terrorism' must infer that the violence is directed against civilian, non-combatants. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, provides a much more appropriate characterization of terrorism when he defined it as: "The deliberate and systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends."

Events in our not too distant past, most particularly revelations from Fort Bragg, North Carolina within the past year, suggest that elements of terroristic organizations and groups do exist within the ranks of the military, the full extent is yet unknown. These incidents of terroristic or extremist activities have been primarily associated with individuals involved in extreme right-wing and/or white-supremacist hate groups, and they seem to reflect a growing racial hate-oriented tension which is occurring in the civilian society as well. Examples of this assertion include the "call to arms" of blacks against whites, and vice versa, by various extremist hate groups and the rampant street violence inflicted by Skinheads against blacks, gays and other minorities.(11)

Such problems are not necessarily new to the military. In the late 1970's, several sailors aboard the USS Independence donned Ku Klux Klan robes while underway in the Mediterranean Sea, and Ku Klux Klan activities were reported on at least two other Atlantic Fleet ships. In 1981, four Fort Monroe soldiers were forced to resign by the Army for their open and blatant participation in the Ku Klux Klan.(12) The 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has had associations with white-supremacists groups within the past two decades. In 1979 the Army discharged a sergeant named Glenn Miller for distributing racist literature, after which he founded the White Patriots Party which espoused the violent takeover of the United States government, including the mass slayings of high officials and minorities (coincidentally or not, very similar to tactics and strategies portrayed in The Turner Diaries).(13) Miller was arrested and stood trial on other charges in 1986, during which Robert Norman Jones, a prosecution witness and former Marine, testified that the White Patriots Party had obtained more than $50,000 of anti-personnel mines, grenades and other ordinance stolen from sources at Fort Bragg and that active-duty soldiers had helped him train party members in tactics and the use of those weapons. Klanwatch Project in Montgomery, Alabama implicated ten active-duty Marines as being members of the White Patriots Party in a related case in 1986. Three of the Marines were eventually discharged as a result.(14)

When considering the involvement, or potential involvement, of active duty military personnel with terrorist or extremist groups, we must not only address their participation or membership in such groups, but also the opposite spectrum which is the use of the military to combat or prevent domestic terrorism. Historically, the United States' military forces have only rarely been used to directly combat domestic terrorists or potentially violent extremist groups. The first such use of the military was by George Washington in 1794, when he put down Pennsylvania's 'Whiskey Rebellion' tax revolt with federal troops. Later, immediately after the Civil War, Southern GOP officials tried to use the Army to suppress the reign of terror led by the Ku Klux Klan, but failed and the troops were withdrawn; the incident led to the Posse Comitatus Act. One of the most notable cases, to which parallels can be drawn to current religious fundamentalists, was that of the fundamentalists of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and their convictions to practice polygamy in Utah. Immediately after the church was founded in 1830, it became obvious that the concept and practice would put the church at odds with society at large. Mormons were strongly persecuted for their practice of polygamy, and numerous clashes with "gentiles" in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois drove them to establish a "stronghold" in Utah.(15)

By the time President Buchanan assumed office in 1857, the Mormons in Utah were in open rebellion against the United States government over the issue of polygamy, among other things, including an incident in which rebellious Mormon settlers massacred more than 100 California-bound immigrants in southern Utah. In response, Buchanan sent an Army under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston to Utah to put down the rebellion. The Mormons, convinced that the millennium was at hand and that the demise of the United States government was imminent, were more than willing to fight for their way of life against Johnston's army. The army was attacked repeatedly by Mormon guerrilla bands as they proceeded towards Utah, but finally arrived and established a military post at Camp Floyd, and restored the peace. Ultimately President Buchanan negotiated a settlement with the Mormons for them to accept an appointed governor, and the practice of polygamy continued unabated until the late 1880s.(16)

Characterization of Groups

To fully understand the way social and moral attitudes and convictions have shaped the American perception of groups that promote extremist views and actions, some eventually leading to acts of terrorism, it must first be understood that the unique cultural characteristics of our society are extremely dynamic and change to some extent with each new generation. A brief review of the general types of domestic terrorism that have occurred in the United States since the Civil War is provided to illustrate the magnitude of those differences.

Post-Civil War. Following the defeat of the military forces of the Confederate States of America, at least the formally recognized forces, and the conclusion of the Civil War there remained massive numbers of displaced and desperate civilians and veterans. There were also a few remaining die-hard elements of armed resistance within the South. The widespread poverty and extremely destitute conditions present following the war, and the occupation of the South by Union troops, combined with the profiteers and lingering attitudes of white supremacy, spawned an environment of lawlessness and corruption that was addressed through vigilante justice. These conditions were the impetus for the formation of the original Ku Klux Klan, whose principal role was to restore its version of law and order and to protect the white southern people from opportunistic victimization by marauding criminal elements, and militant ex-slaves. Once law and order and civil justice were reinstituted in the South through the passage of the Federal Force Act there was no longer any need for the Klan, and it faded away.(17)

Other terrorist acts during the late nineteenth century were primarily in association with organized labor disputes, and were dominated by anarchist attacks against industrialists and their holdings. Much of the impetus for these attacks was strongly influenced by the Russian labor struggles and communist doctrine being spread to the United States. The most famous of these attacks was the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago, in which seven policemen were killed and seventy were wounded.(18)

In the early 1920's the Ku Klux Klan was revitalized, only this time its motivations and goals were purely oriented towards white supremacy, religious extremism, and a general hatred of anyone and anything outside of their view of right and wrong, good or bad. The "new" Klan became a very powerful and dangerous political engine in the United States throughout the next half-century, often controlling or strongly influencing local and state elections.(19)

Vietnam War Period. There was a dramatic difference in the character and motivating factors of domestic terrorism of the Vietnam War period. Widespread discontent among a large segment of the American people, particularly among college-aged youth, with the United States government and its involvement in the war, combined with racial tensions and an anti-establishment movement, fueled a wide variety of violent demonstrations, riots, and terrorist actions. Groups such as the Weathermen Underground, Ku Klux Klan, Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, The New Year's Gang, and many others too numerous to mention, were instrumental in conducting an unprecedented assault on almost all aspects of life in the United States. In California alone, an average of twenty bombs per week rocked the state throughout the summer of 1970.(20)

The impact of the violent and vocal rhetoric of these groups on the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, particularly those serving in Vietnam, was significant in that it caused many to question their actions and severely disrupted morale through racial conflicts and unrest. Although President Truman had issued the Executive Order Number 9981 in 1948 which required "equality of treatment and opportunity in the military," reality, almost two decades later, was that throughout most of the Vietnam War those goals of equal opportunity and treatment of all racial and ethnic groups remained far from fruition. Exacerbated by stresses from the war and social upheaval in the civilian sector, serious racially-motivated violence was endemic in the Army during the early 1970s. The quality of military training and readiness were seriously compromised by these stressors.(21) Ultimately, as was demonstrated through America's experience during the Vietnam War, the social and political environment in the civilian "world" does have an impact on the military, and it is that correlation that is the most threatening danger from the current increases in racial and anti-government elements within this country.