Special Report—United We Stand

International Terrorism Hits Home

The Meaning of Terrorism
Recent Terrorist Attacks Against the United States
How the United States Responds to Terrorism
The American Response to the Attacks of September 11, 2001

World Trade Center rubble
In the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, teams of workers labored to clear the tons of debris from the collapsed skyscrapers. The disaster site covered 16 acres. In this picture, American flags can be seen hanging from neighboring buildings in a display of patriotism.

In our nation's past, a handful of events have instantly redirected the course of history itself. These are events in which the entire country recognized at once that the world had changed and that their lives would never be the same. The terrorist attacks of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, qualify as such an event. The attacks are unprecedented in the history of the United States.

On September 11, 2001, teams of hijackers gained control of four commercial airplanes, crashing three of them into prominent American buildings: the Pentagon and the two 110-story towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The fourth plane crashed into the ground in western Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board. A total of 266 passengers and crew on the four hijacked planes lost their lives.

The Pentagon disaster not only cost the lives of all 64 passengers on the plane, it also killed more than 100 people at the Pentagon and did extensive damage to the building. At the World Trade Center, fires caused by the two airplane crashes led to the total collapse of both huge towers. In turn, the collapses damaged numerous buildings below. The devastation from this catastrophe is hard to comprehend. The death toll at the World Trade Center is about 3,000, including 157 people on the two hijacked planes. New York City, one of the world's great cities and its leading financial center, was brought to a standstill.

Beyond the damage to buildings and other structures are the wounds inflicted on the hearts and minds of Americans. The horrifying image of two of the world's mightiest and most recognizable buildings—symbols of the nation's strength, energy, and leadership—collapsing in smoke and fire will haunt millions of Americans for the rest of their lives. The attacks cut across national boundaries, as people around the world reacted with shock and grief.

The Meaning of Terrorism

The dictionary defines terrorism as the use of force to achieve terror. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, terrorism is "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government [or] the civilian population." Terrorism is distinct from warfare, in which nations that have openly declared war on each other engage in battle.

Typically, terrorist attacks are surprise attacks launched against unsuspecting, and thus defenseless, targets. A terrorist attack may have several purposes. It may simply be an attempt to call attention to a particular cause. It may be meant to avenge a "crime" of some sort. Terrorist attacks may also aim to weaken a society or government. For example, terrorists might attack the United States believing they can provoke the government into taking away people's freedoms. This loss of freedom could weaken the basic fabric of American society. Other goals of terrorists might be to harm the economy or provoke military action. A war or economic hardship could place great strain on a nation. Even the generalized fear among citizens that their government may not be able to protect their safety can be harmful over time.

Terrorists may justify their actions on the basis of a political goal, such as the downfall of an enemy government. Others may act out of religious beliefs, saying that their faith commands them to punish enemies. Some—so-called state-sponsored terrorists—are sponsored by governments. Others act on their own behalf or on behalf of groups.

Recent Terrorist Attacks Against the United States

The U.S. government and experts on terrorism generally believe that people who are not United States citizens are responsible for most terrorist attacks against the United States. One notable example of domestic terrorism was carried out in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995. On April 19, 1995, a bomb exploded at the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. Following an extensive investigation, U.S. citizen Timothy McVeigh was arrested, tried, and convicted for the attack. McVeigh received the death penalty and was executed on June 11, 2001.

Recent examples of international terrorist attacks against the United States include the following:

  • On October 12, 2000, terrorists attacked the USS Cole, a warship that was refueling in a port in Yemen, a country located on the Arabian Peninsula. Seventeen American sailors were killed.
  • On August 7, 1998, bombs exploded at United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people.
  • On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb exploded outside a military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 members of the United States armed forces.
  • On February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in the garage of the World Trade Center. Six people were killed.

Each of these attacks had its own aims and purposes. In general, they were designed to express outrage at U.S. actions. In some cases, federal officials were able to find at least some of the people responsible for the deadly acts.

How the United States Responds to Terrorism

As you have read, terrorism is not a new problem for the United States. In addition, our leaders have long had policies aimed at preventing terrorism. The United States has spent billions of dollars on efforts to learn about terrorist groups and on measures to protect American citizens and facilities in this country and around the world. Another focus of American effort is to encourage other nations to join in the fight against terrorism. The United States has also put pressure on nations that are suspected of harboring terrorists or tolerating their activity. Terrorist groups are a major focus of U.S. intelligence-gathering around the world.

Meanwhile, the federal, state, and local governments are constantly examining terrorist practices and seeking ways to improve efforts to stop terrorism. In recent years, the federal government has commissioned several studies of the nation's antiterrorist practices and has asked the study groups to recommend new policies or actions to help keep the nation safe. Examples include the National Commission on Terrorism and the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (also known as the Gilmore Commission). Both were established by Congress in 1999.

The United States has had some success in thwarting terrorism in this country. In the days before January 1, 2000, alert border officials at the U.S.–Canada border stopped an individual apparently involved in a plot to carry out a New Year's terrorist attack in the United States.

The American Response to the Attacks of September 11, 2001

Notwithstanding the tremendous efforts of American leaders in the war against terrorism, the events of September 11, 2001, make it clear that terrorist attacks cannot always be prevented. In such situations, federal, state, and local governments must be prepared to respond to the attack itself. This requires swift, comprehensive action from a wide range of organizations.

The Response During the Attacks The attacks of September 11 came from airplanes flying over a wide area of the United States. In the first moments of the attack, officials could not be sure how many planes were involved and where they were located. In the face of this situation, the Federal Aviation Administration acted quickly, ordering a nationwide "ground stop." This prevented any type of aircraft from taking off from any location in the United States and required all airborne craft to land as soon as possible. Flights headed toward the United States from foreign countries were sent back or diverted. Such a step had never before been taken in the history of aviation in the United States.

The Response Immediately Following the Attacks In New York City, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania, however, the FAA's action came too late to prevent disaster. As the planes slammed into their targets in New York and Washington, officials on the ground mounted their response.

New York City had been through something like this before. In the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the city had established the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management (OEM). The OEM was designed to coordinate the response of the many emergency agencies required in the aftermath of a disaster.

Within moments of the first attack on the World Trade Center, emergency crews were on the scene, helping people evacuate the buildings, giving first aid to the injured, and working to prevent any further terrorist attacks. Tragically, the very speed and efficiency of these units put them in position to become victims. Dozens of firefighters and police officers were in and around the buildings when they collapsed a short while after being struck by the airplanes.

In spite of the unimaginable devastation, the work of emergency responders continued. Fire and rescue crews from all across the region—and across the country—moved in to fight fires and begin the search for survivors. Medical personnel set up makeshift hospitals and treatment areas in different parts of the city. Many of these efforts were part of emergency plans laid out ahead of time by the OEM. The coordination of the thousands of volunteers was a massive task.

The Federal Investigation: Identifying Suspects A key component of the United States' terrorism policy is its commitment to bringing terrorists to justice. As news of the attacks emerged, law enforcement officials immediately began the hunt for the criminals. At the same time, government officials also began to line up international support and cooperation for this effort. Within days of the attack, significant information had been obtained about the identity of the alleged hijackers. Several arrests were made of individuals thought to have information about the attack. By Monday, September 17, the federal government had officially named Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect. Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian, has been implicated in a series of deadly attacks on the United States and its allies since 1993, including the bombing of the USS Cole, the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 1993 bomb attack at the World Trade Center. Bin Laden denied involvement in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but in a statement released through an aide, called the attacks "punishment from Allah." As part of the federal government's response to the attacks, the Department of Defense gave an order on September 20, 2001, for dozens of warplanes to move to bases in the Persian Gulf region.

American Citizens Respond While the government's response has been massive, the response of ordinary citizens of the United States has been equally impressive. Throughout the nation, people lined up to give blood to aid the victims of the attack. Others donated money and supplies. Millions more have given their moral support by attending vigils and services for the victims. Along with community and political leaders, including President Bush, many people have also shown support for ordinary, law-abiding Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia living in the United States.

In the meantime, the shocked nation mourns its loss. At the same time, its citizens have committed themselves to overcoming this tragedy. While the spirit of the nation suffered a terrible shock, it is clear from the responses of people around the country that the American spirit is alive and strong. That spirit represents our best hope that the nation will emerge from the devastation in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania even stronger than before.