Given how searing the 9/11 experience was, it is sometimes hard to remember that prior generations of Americans didn’t always sleep soundly either. Pearl Harbor is an often-cited example, but it joins many other moments of intense fear in U.S. history. During the 40-plus years of the Cold War, American school children practiced “duck and cover” drills the way today’s kids might practice school lock-downs. As a teenager in the 1980s, I joined Sting in hoping we could avert a nuclear holocaust if “the Russians love their children, too.” It may seem silly now because those particular threats didn’t come to pass, but it certainly felt real at the time.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, other threats in the United States soon appeared: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Park bombing, to name just a few. During the 1990s, some in the military liked to refer to the United States as a “homeland sanctuary”; after 9/11, many talked about the end of that sanctuary. But was the United States ever really a sanctuary to begin with?
True, the country has experienced fewer external threats to its population than have most other nations. Not every country can be so lucky as to share its land borders with only two countries, let alone have the strong relationships with those neighbors that the U.S. has with Mexico and Canada. But it’s a misconception to think that the American sense of external threat is new. Tell that to Japanese Americans interned by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration or to the settlers and Native Americans who for centuries felt threatened by each other.
Some aspects of the post-9/11 era do distinguish it from prior years of homeland security. The United States seems to face a larger and more diverse number of man-made threats, often involving only handfuls of people or lone operators. This means security officials must anticipate risks across a broad range of situations. Two factors have shaped this new reality.
First is the spread of radical ideologies that encourage attacks on Americans, oppose symbols of American culture and influence, and condemn the United States government. These threats can be homegrown in the United States or imported from abroad—the line between the two often blurs. They can be state-based, state-sponsored, or state-free. They are often helped along by a global information environment that allows those who seek to cause Americans harm to connect with like-minded individuals, seek motivation in online writing or images, and find suggestions and instructions on crafting the tools of violence. Groups or individuals using Islamist justification for violence are of the greatest current concern to the public and likely will be for some time to come. Other potentially violent groups include white supremacists, separatists, anarchists, and anti-globalization activists. Foreign states have recently concerned Americans far less than domestic or foreign terrorists, but recent cyberattacks and intrusions by Russia, Iran, and North Korea may increase the public’s concern about these countries.