Share this article

print logo


Our country considers terrorism a crime, one that is committed for political or social purposes. Technically, terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property designed to intimidate or coerce a government or the civilian population in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Terrorism differs from most other types of crime because the offenders usually have no financial or personal motives or at least these motives are not the primary ones. Instead, they attempt to make a "point" that goes beyond their own self-interest. Their purpose may be to overthrow a government, to punish a country for perceived wrongdoings, or they may wish to publicize an unpopular opinion in the country that they terrorize.

Terrorists systematically murder and destroy or threaten such violence in order to intimidate individuals, groups, communities or governments. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, were meant to be acts that not only resulted in a tremendous loss of life and property but also acts that would create anxiety, horror and panic among all of us who survived.

The intent of the terrorists was to produce a state of fear and submission -- to create vulnerability and uncertainty that would shatter our confidence in ourselves and in our institutions. The individuals who planned and executed the attacks want American economic, political and social decline as well as individual fear.

Crucial to the terrorists' scheme is the exploitation of the media to attract attention to their cause. In the case of the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, staging of the attack for media coverage appears to have been an important part of the planning.

So many of us watched the replays of the attack and destruction of the World Trade Center on television that it is probable that, like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, we will always remember where we were at the time of the attacks.

What image of these attacks will remain in our minds? How will we represent these attacks historically? Of course, we will remember and record the sight of the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the sight of the Pentagon on fire. However, if we want to heal our national consciousness, it is essential that we also carefully consider, remember and record what happened after the terrorist attacks.

What happened afterward was not the response of vulnerability that the terrorists wanted but a response of care and compassion for the victims, their families and friends. As in natural disasters, we saw the emergence of a "therapeutic community" in which strangers as well as members of various helping organizations came to the site of the twin towers and the Pentagon to give whatever assistance they could.

There were police and firefighters who gave their lives trying to find survivors, and there were volunteers from all parts of our country who came to offer help without hesitation. Those who gave blood and financial donations to helping organizations also participated in constructive, altruistic forms of social behavior that are a part of the American psyche. Therefore, rather than reacting with fear and panic, we offered and accepted the protective behavior of friends, relatives and strangers.

How our government immediately responded to the attacks on Sept. 11 is also important to consider in the context of how we will remember and record the attacks.

Soon after the attacks, a small percentage of Americans thought that Muslin-Americans should be held responsible for the attacks. Reports of violence against Muslim-Americans surfaced, and President Bush, as well as other political and religious leaders, reminded us that such action was unlawful as well as un-American. We also witnessed Muslim-Americans denouncing the attacks on our country, and we recognized that the terrorists did not achieve another of their objectives: to make us afraid of one another.

In the last few days, we have resumed our routine activities and have tried to return some sense of "normalcy" to our lives. There is less discussion of the attacks in our homes and at work. There is substantially less time devoted to the attacks by the media, and people are once again making plans concerning their future.

This process of resuming our routine activities is an important and normal part of the healing process. We feel wounded in a psychological sense, even though we may not have experienced any direct loss from the attacks. We can overcome our feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty by returning to the life patterns we had before the attacks.

What does returning to "normalcy" mean in the context of the terrorist attacks? Again, our response is similar to the patterns found following a natural disaster. Many Americans will find that they appreciate and cherish more dearly their family, friends and even that job they once thought of quitting. Others will decide to make the change in their lives that they have thought about but have been postponing.

Whether change or status quo is the decision, people are more reflective about their lives after this kind of event. While the topic of the tragedy may have preoccupied us immediately after the attacks, the topic of the meaning of our lives preoccupies us during the healing process. Talking about this issue with friends, family and counselors can facilitate the healing process and link us once again to having a sense of confidence about our future.

In the next few weeks, months and perhaps years, we will act to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks on our country. Justice refers to moral rightness, to lawfulness. To bring to justice means that those who have committed wrongs receive deserved punishment for their misdeeds.

As with our response immediately after the attacks, we can decide whether our motivation to bring to justice derives principally from fear and vulnerability or from the principles that make us who we are as Americans. We can move forward with our response because we love America and because we love the world that we understand is imperfect.

To come from the motivation of deep affection for America and the world means that we can carefully and thoughtfully consider how to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks. Principles of truth, reason and fairness and the strength of our convictions about the moral rightness of our actions can guide our response.

Indeed, one of the issues that we should consider is whether the terrorist acts on Sept. 11 constitute a criminal act or an act of war. President Bush states that we have entered into a war against terrorism, but the very fact that it is not a nation that has attacked us but rather a small number of individuals linked by a common purpose makes it difficult for us to conceptualize how we can fight and win this war.

Americans have traditionally viewed terrorism as an international problem, not an American one. This changed in 1993 with the bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. In response, one year after the Oklahoma bombing, President Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 into law. Among other measures, the act bars terrorists from entering the United States and makes it easier to conduct surveillance operations on suspected terrorists.

In 1999, two Presidential Directives for Countermeasures Against Terrorism were signed into law. These presidential directives called for a more systematic approach to fighting the terrorist threat that included risk assessment and planning in order to reduce exposure to risk. The directives enabled law enforcement authorities to give higher priority to terrorism investigations, with the emphasis on prevention of terrorist acts.

However, as the events of Sept. 11 have demonstrated, preventing terrorist acts is extremely difficult, because the enemy is difficult to identify and apprehend and because terrorist acts, by their nature, are random and unpredictable. In addition, the willingness of terrorists to give up their lives for their cause limits the kind of prevention that is possible.

Combating future acts of terrorism means that we will need to reconsider and make decisions about the balance between civil liberty and government power. We must ask ourselves:

Is it in the nation's best interest to sacrifice due process of law, freedom from improper search and seizure, and privacy rights in order to curb terrorism?

How much surveillance are we willing to permit in order to achieve a greater degree of personal and national security?

If we federalize our airports and permit pilots to carry guns, how will these changes affect our conception of ourselves as Americans?

Moreover, First Amendment protection, that is, freedom of expression, may also be a concern that we may try to address. The FBI has stated that some Internet sources are repositories for inflammatory rhetoric that can influence extremists.

Databases on the Internet contain recipes for bombs, dispense information on unconventional weapons or offer computer viruses for download. There are also chat rooms for people who hold extremist views as well as sites that have anti-government postings. Does a person have a right to post whatever he or she wants on the Internet, or should there be a standard for Internet content? How do we draw the line between free speech and speech that is unacceptable because of the risk that it poses for terrorist and other kinds of violence?

In sum, if we exchange civil liberties for increased personal and national security, we need to accept the possibility for state action against innocent persons. Significant changes in civil liberties also can change our consciousness about the freedoms that we hold so dear and that make us proud to be Americans.

A financial cost is also a part of the picture. The costs of increased airport security and more law enforcement personnel in intelligence operations, customs and immigration will be borne by taxpayers. These considerations challenge us to find and strike a balance between our needs for freedom and our needs for security.

The National Commission on Terrorism, created by Congress after the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, issued a report in 2000 recommending aggressive steps to prevent terrorism. These included making the U.S. military the agency to lead the government's response to terrorist attacks, rather than law enforcement agencies. The commission also recommended that we monitor foreign students in the United States and that sanctions be taken against nations that fail to cooperate fully with terrorism investigations.

These recommendations sparked controversy at the time, but in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Congress will probably more seriously consider these recommendations as well as others. Already Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked Congress to act quickly to expand the FBI's wiretapping authority, to impose stronger penalties on those who harbor or finance terrorists and to increase punishments for terrorists themselves.

We are a nation of doers, achievers, inventors and often individuals who want a quick solution to problems. Our moral rage pushes us to retaliate and to demand that our government "fix" our country and the world so we can feel safe again. We want the country that we had before Sept. 11, although we know that our country and the world are forever changed.

We also recognize that there is no quick solution and that patience is required to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

As we prepare for a war on terrorism, it is the legacy that we want hand down to future generations that should guide our decisions about how we respond to the attacks. As we consider, remember and record into history the events of Sept. 11 and how we responded afterward, we should ask ourselves: What does it mean to be an American?

PATRICIA E. ERICKSON is director of the criminal justice program and associate professor of sociology at Canisius College.