Many of us, I suspect, didn’t give a lot of thought to terrorists or terrorism prior to Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks that killed nearly 3,500 people in the United States that day certainly got our attention.
But terrorists and terrorism have been in the world for a long time, including acts of domestic terrorism in the U.S. That’s according to Dr. Art Pitz (professorshouse.net), a retired professor at Black Hawk College.
Based on a course he teaches, Pitz spoke on “International Terrorism: A Brief History” at a Black Hawk seminar held in March in Moline.
I attended his talk because the topic sounded interesting, and I have worked with Pitz in the past and wanted to say hello.
When I was a newsman at WOC Radio, I used the good doctor, who now is an adjunct professor at Augustana and St. Ambrose, to provide expert commentary in two areas, history and politics.
“Terrorism in the modern world began with the French Revolution (1789-1799), so it’s been around for quite some time,” Pitz told his audience. During the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) that was kicked off by the revolution, he said 40,000 people were executed by guillotine.
The more modern form of terrorism used on 9/11 has its roots, he said, in the late 19th Century. That’s when a small group of Irish terrorists fought against the British, who occupied Ireland, by bombing London subways.
“That’s where it begins,” Pitz said. “The British successfully quashed them.”
He said there have been many terrorist groups since then, including the Nazi regime in Germany that destroyed its opposition and persecuted Jews.
Terrorists, Pitz said, have a couple of definable characteristics: They have specific goals, usually regime change. And they cannot bring the change about by peaceful means, so they turn to violence.
He said they often use bombs to accomplish their purpose. “A bomb in a rubbish bin,” he said, “could be anywhere at any time. That’s gets our attention.”
In addition, Pitz said terrorists:
* Use acts of violence because they “aim to have far-reaching, psychologically damaging affects.”
* Aren’t concerned about killing innocent civilians because it’s for a greater purpose.
* Work as an organization that’s difficult to penetrate from an intelligence point of view.
* Usually are non-state entities, which makes tracking them difficult.
* Violate all the known rules of warfare.
U.S. citzens should have an understanding of terrorism, Pitz said, because we’ve had it in our own history and not that long ago. An example of domestic terrorists, he said, is the Ku Klux Klan.
“It carried out violence to achieve its goal against civilians. It lynched people without a trial. Burned them, sometimes before they were dead,” he said. “Civil rights workers in the south knew in the ’50s and ’60s that they were at risk of their lives. And some of them lost their lives to the KKK.”
Pitz said the Klan had 5 million dues-paying members in the 1920s. “That’s much, much larger than al Qaeda. In the state of Indiana, you could not get elected to any office … unless you were supported by the Klan. It was not just a southern organization.”
But Pitz said lone terrorists are the terrorists most difficult to track down.
An example, he said, was John Allen Muhammad who, along with a younger partner, carried out the 2002 Beltway Sniper Attacks, killing at least 10 people.
There is some good news in all of this: Your chances of dying at the hands of a terrorist are remote.
According to Pitz, an individual in the U.S. is far more likely to get hurt in a highway crash than by a terrorist’s bomb. In fact, he said more people die on U.S. highways in a given year than have been killed by all of the terrorist actions of the last three centuries.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist acts stand out in our minds, he said, because no previous terrorist act in recent times had killed that many people.
We also are fortunate, Pitz said, that we are not one of the societies that have to deal with terrorism on virtually a daily basis.
“Israel has enemies,” he noted, “that want to wipe it off the face of the earth. We’re blessed by way of comparison.”
But that doesn’t mean the U.S. is out of danger.
We know who the terrorists are and why they do it, Pitz said. There have been no attacks since 9/11, “so our intelligence folks must have figured some things out.”
But he said another attack could happen tomorrow.
Copyright 2011 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece submitted as a column to The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.