Criminalization of Terrorism or the Politicization of Fear? U.S. Responses to Terrorism From the Palmer Raids to September 11, 2001

Adam L. Silverman, University of Florida
Jacob R. Straus, University of Florida

Immediately following the terrorist incidents of September 11, 2001, the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government went into overdrive in an attempt to fashion an approrpriate set of responses. This is not the first time that the White House and Congress have had to react to acts of terrorism, both domestic and international. The purpose of this paper is to examine four distinct instances in which the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government have dealt with acts of terrorism. While the responses have changed over time: from the Palmer Raids of the 1920s to the emergence of international terrorism in the 1970s, as well as from the bombings of the Murrah Federal Building and the first World Trade Center attacks to September 11th, they have all shared one characteristic -- initial panic and overreaction. Through a detailed look at the government response using primary and secondary sources in combination with interviews with members of the executive bureaucracy, we examine why the government has a history of overreaction to terrorist activities. We then analyze the previous responses to terrorism. Finally, we suggest how the lessons from these earlier responses can improve future governmental policy to acts of terrorism.

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Updated 05/20/2006