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Political-social Terrorism

Terrorist acts have long been used to call attention to political and social causes. Political terrorists attempt to make their views known by violent actions in an effort to influence others. Terrorists with social causes seek to change a specific policy or behavior. Social terrorists attempt to force their beliefs on the general population.

One of the most violent American political terrorist organizations of the second half of the twentieth century was the Weather Underground, active between 1969 and 1975. The Weather Underground, whose members were called Weathermen, split off from a larger organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The SDS, made up of mostly college students, first formed in 1960 to help with the nonviolent Civil Rights movement of black Americans in the United States. As more and more young people were sent off to fight in the unpopular Vietnam War (1954–75; a controversial war in which the United States aided South Vietnam in its fight against a takeover by Communist North Vietnam) in the 1960s, SDS became active in protests hoping to halt the war. SDS was considered part of the "New Left," or liberal, element of the American political scene that strongly supported civil rights and peaceful solutions to conflict.

Some SDS members believed their actions were making no difference as the United States continued to escalate the war. A small group formed the Weathermen and declared a "State of War" on the U.S. government. They were responsible for about twenty-four bombings, including those at the New York City police headquarters (1970), a U.S. army base and courthouse in San Francisco (1970), and a New York City Bank of America and courthouse (1970). They planted bombs in the Members of the organization Students for a Democratic Society during a 1968 demonstration. (© Bettmann/Corbis) U.S. Capitol (1971) and inside the Pentagon (1972). As the Vietnam War wound down in the mid-1970s, the Weathermen who had escaped arrest went into hiding and the Weather Underground dissolved.

On the other side of the political spectrum are groups on the far right, known as ultraconservatives. They too oppose the U.S. government but for different reasons. Called the "militia movement," they began to form in the early 1970s and remain active into the 2000s. Members generally hate the U.S. government believing it is too big and powerful. They oppose taxes and arm themselves against the perceived risk that the U.S. government will take away their possessions.

Another major element of their philosophy is white supremacy, which insists those of white or Caucasian background are superior to minorities such as Jews, black Americans, and more recently homosexuals. The Aryan Nation, Posse Comitatus, and Christian Patriots are examples of heavily armed groups capable of terrorist activities in the American homeland. These groups tend to be located in the Midwest and western states.

The worst terrorist action carried out in the United States prior to 9/11 was the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. McVeigh, although not a member of a militia group, strongly agreed with their beliefs and was considered a political terrorist. McVeigh was convicted on eleven counts of murder, conspiracy, and using a weapon of mass destruction. He was later sentenced to death and executed in June 2001. Nichols was convicted first in federal court, then again in state court but was spared the death penalty in 2004. He received life in prison for his role in the bombing.

An ongoing example of a social terrorist group in the United States is the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). First formed in 1866, the KKK remains active in the early 2000s. The KKK is a white supremacy group associated with brutal activities against black Americans for almost 150 years. The Klan also expresses hatred of Jews and Catholics. The KKK's most recent major period of activity occurred against black Americans during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The most radical and violent social terrorism to occur in the United States from the 1970s into the 2000s involves antiabortion or "Pro-Life" activists. Abortion is the ending of a pregnancy by a medical procedure. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade that any woman could choose to end a pregnancy by abortion performed by medical doctors at abortion clinics.

This ruling sparked intense debate over when a fetus (unborn child) becomes a child able to sustain life outside the mother's body, thus having the right to live. Abortion is considered the murder of an unborn child by many Americans. Pro-Life terrorist groups have used bombs, arson, and murder to target abortion clinics and their personnel. Starting in the early 1980s, abortion clinics and staff were the targets of about two thousand violent actions in a twenty-year period. In the 1990s at least eight people—doctors, receptionists, a guard, and a policeman—were killed in abortion terrorist actions.

The ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, after a 1995 bombing by Timothy McVeigh. (AP/Wide World Photos)

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawTerrorism - Nationalistic Terrorism, Religious Terrorism, State-sponsored Terrorism, Political-social Terrorism, Environmental Terrorism - Terrorist tools