Sept. 11 looms large as the defining example of a terrorist attack on the United States, but it was one of more than 1,000 in recent years and a very atypical example.
“The United States has experienced over 1,350 terrorist attacks since 1970, peaking in the mid-1970s with 120 attacks per year,” states a new analysis by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), based at the University of Maryland and a research arm of the Homeland Security Department.
The data were gleaned from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which includes detailed information - weapons, casualties, perpetrators - on more than 80,000 attacks worldwide between 1970 and 2007.
“The real message here is that the 9/11 attack changed everything in the United States - and to some extent around the world - even though it was an incredibly atypical event. Because 9/11 has become the very symbol for terrorism, we tend to think of all terrorist attacks as being similar,” said Gary LaFree, director of START.
“So, 9/11 poses a policy dilemma. On the one hand, there is no denying its impact. On the other hand, if we consider it to be typical of terrorist attacks, we will have a very misleading view of terrorism,” Mr. LaFree said.
But the nation’s impression of what constitutes “terrorism” is often influenced by frequent, dramatic news coverage. Terrorism, in fact, has been the No. 1 story three times in the last five weeks, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, filling up one-third of total coverage. Throughout 2008, terrorism only accounted for 1 percent, the group said.
“The complex, visceral and increasingly politicized issue of how to combat the terror threat is now leading the mainstream news agenda, even pushing out the economy,” noted analyst Mark Jurkowitz.
The coverage was driven by the recent capture of four terrorism suspects in New York, the potential closure of the detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, whether the U.S. tortured detainees and the exchanges between President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney about U.S. policy.
Public impressions of terrorism, meanwhile, have driven much speculation among researchers who have found that anxiety, stress and substance abuse increased among the general population after large-scale terrorist events - even among those exposed to “second-hand terrorism” through media coverage.
Regardless of public perceptions, the START researchers deal only with hard numbers, and they found that there have been 25 terrorist attacks against American religious figures or institutions and 38 terrorist attacks against military targets in the United States since 1970.
The analysis also found that of 53 foreign terrorist groups judged to be “the most dangerous to the U.S.,” 97 percent of their attacks were not on American soil.
“Unlike 9/11, most terrorist attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere are from domestic groups, not international ones,” Mr. LaFree said. “Unlike 9/11, most terrorist attacks include few if any fatalities. Unlike 9/11, most attacks do not involve in-depth planning or sophisticated weaponry. Unlike al Qaeda, most terrorist groups are not long-lasting.”