Labeling terrorism before and after 9/11

This post continues our series sharing pre-publication versions of chapter introductions in our upcoming book titled “Prosecuting Political Violence: Collaborative Research and Method”

Chapter 3

Labeling terrorism before and after 9/11
by Lauren Donahoe

11 September 2001 was a significant turning point in the history of domestic terrorism. This event impacted how American citizens perceive terrorism, as well as how the government chooses what is and is not designated as terrorism. While countless studies have been performed to analyze the effects of this tragedy, this chapter uses the Prosecution Project (tPP) data to evaluate 9/11 as a turning point in the prosecution of terrorism in America through a statistical analysis approach. This is done using the dataset both in its entirety and in smaller segments of data prior to and following 9/11. The frequencies of particular variables within the data- set were analyzed to understand how they changed after 9/11 in the short term and long term. Pearson’s chi-squared tests were performed to determine if changes in frequency over time could be considered significant or if they were simply due to chance. Cross-tabulations were also used to look for relationships between variables without testing for significance.

Based on the statistics, this chapter demonstrates that 9/11 altered which types of crimes are most commonly considered terrorism by the US government. Prior to 2001, nonviolent crimes that were not motivated by a particular ideology were not classified as terrorism. That changed drastically after 9/11, and although the most notable changes happened in the immediate aftermath, these trends have continued long term. This chapter establishes 9/11 as a catalyst of the current rhetoric surrounding terrorism across ideologies. 9/11 impacted the perception of crimes committed by not only “othered” individuals but also “non-othered” individuals. This event marked a clear shift in determining which crimes are labeled as terrorism, and those labels have had lasting ramifications.

While some chapters in this book focus on particular variables or relationships between variables in the dataset, this chapter aims to show how the data can be used effectively to examine trends over time. This analysis also highlights some of the unique facets of tPP’s data. Many terrorism databases collect data on incidents that have occurred since 9/11. Others focus only on attacks, regardless of if and how they were prosecuted. The data from tPP spans a much wider time period, allowing researchers to explore questions of change over time and cause and effect. It also captures a more complete picture of what domestic terrorism looks like by including nonviolent felonies, rather than just attacks. Additionally, tPP includes data on crimes across all ideologies, allowing for direct comparisons. In this chapter, this was useful to juxtapose trends in Salafi/Jihadist terrorism with trends in rightist terrorism. Due to these aspects of tPP, the data lends itself for use in examining particularly unique research questions. The research question explored in this chapter could not have been answered using any other single dataset alone. This chapter demonstrates one of many ways that tPP data can be used for questions that would otherwise be left unanswered.

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