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Terrorism is not new to American shores

Once upon a time, Americans read with pity, even smugness, of people in faraway lands who, in their most mundane passages of daily life _ going to a store or movie theater _ must pass through metal detectors and by bomb-sniffing dogs.

For now at least, those days seem as past as rotary telephones. In my town, Atlanta, we have had three bombings in seven months.

With each new explosion in America, commentators trumpet the arrival on our shores of terrorism once thought consigned to faraway climes. A scholar, in the Chicago Tribune, makes the point: "I think terrorism has come to America," he said. "It has been going on in Europe for two decades or more. This is not the end. This is just the beginning."

But must the bombings be either a beginning or an end? There is, in fact, a strong case for arguing that recent terrorist acts in the United States are but a continuation of a long-standing tradition.

In some cases, of course _ most notably the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Towers _ recent terrorist acts on U.S. soil have turned out to have direct links to overseas troubles. But even when no foreign connections can be located, many cling to the proposition that such saboteurs are somehow interlopers in America.

We accept that the United States, compared to other industrial democracies, teems with violent street crime. We know that Europeans, when visiting our cities, take safety precautions that they don't take at home. We are also aware that our history abounds with wars and our brutal subjugation of native North American peoples. From James Fenimore Cooper to Clint Eastwood, our novels and films revel in military, frontier and criminal violence.

It's the non-state-sanctioned, ideological violence that we have trouble accepting. Do we not, after all, feel a certain relief when our latest political assassin _ be he Lee Harvey Oswald or John Hinckley _ turns out to be more depraved loner than serious ideologue?

True to our nation-state's Anglo-Saxon origins, with its legalistic preoccupations, our view of America's past tends to focus on treaties, laws and officially declared wars. And with the exception of the Civil War and the various American Indian wars, every U.S. war since the War of 1812 has been fought on foreign shores _ thus nourishing the idea that wars, too, are a kind of violence that happens someplace else.

Missing in action in such contemplation is a kind of shadow history of ideological violence in America _ a tradition of political and religious violence that has attended the United States from its infancy. From Bacon's Rebellion in colonial Virginia to today's militia bombings, we are a nation that, beyond its laws and "official" wars, also knows well the paramilitary, the clandestine, the extralegal.

For instance, long before the 1960s riots that torched Watts, Chicago's Westside and other black communities, racial violence stalked the American landscape. As early as 1741, whites in New York City, suspecting that slaves planned to poison the local water supply, burned alive 13 blacks and hanged another 18. Since at least the 1830s, the growth of cities, immigration and class tensions also nourished regular waves of ideological violence. New York City's anti-draft riots of 1863 resulted in up to 1,200 fatalities. Labor conflicts of the 1870s _ setting precedents repeated with even bloodier results in the early 20th century _ routinely killed and injured scores of strikers and police.

Certainly much of the national amnesia about America's ideological violence is generational. Despite recent headlines, post-World War II-era ideological violence hardly matches that of earlier periods.

Inattention is also nourished by the fact that, in a period stretching over more than two centuries _ except during the Civil War _ scant ideological violence has been directed against the U.S. government. The United States has never produced a seriously formidable revolutionary movement.

That absence of serious threat to the U.S. government underscores what historian Richard Hofstadter has called the "diffuse" nature of U.S. ideological violence. In the '90s alone, home-grown American terrorists have included animal-rights activists, skinheads, radical environmentalists, anti-abortion Christians and right-wing militias.

The point is not that the United States has any more or less such violence than any other country. The point is to stop pretending that we're dealing with something that was not here. The only difference is that today's terrorists _ operating in a highly technological world and using weapons that range from airborne toxic chemicals to high-tech plastic explosives _ pose far graver dangers to our society than any their predecessors could have contemplated.

Tom Chaffin, a historian at Emory University, is the author of Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba, recently published by the University Press of Virginia.

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