A Brief History of DC Terrorist Attacks


How many social media posts did you see this week about ISIS threatening to attack DC?  I would conservatively estimate that I saw around 300 trillion, just on Facebook.  People lost their freaking minds over this ISIS threat, although I admit that some of them may have been acting overdramatic so their boss would let them work from home for the week.  Sadly, this sort of thing has happened before.  The truth is, people burn, bomb, shoot up, poison and snipe DC all the time.  In the two hundred years since the British burned the White House to the ground in 1814, there have been almost thirty separate terrorist-ish attacks in the District, which comes out to one every 7 years.  Every seven years!  That’s basically as often as I buy a new television.  We really shouldn’t be that stressed about it.  My theory is that we repress our memories of this incident so we can go about our daily lives without the constant throbbing awareness that you live in a city that gets attacked ONCE EVERY SEVEN YEARS OH MY GOD I’M MOVING BACK TO WICHITA.

No, but seriously, to get some of that sweet sweet aversion therapy relief, let’s review some of the obscure attacks that have happened here.

hith-british-burn-washington-dc-200-years-ago-ETHE BRITISH BURN DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE (1814)

It’s strange that it took the Vietnam War to shatter American pretensions of superiority when, just 150 years earlier, a foreign army marched into our capital and burned the symbol of our democracy to the ground.  What!?  Yes, this actually happened.  After winning the Battle of Bladensburg, the British army marched down to DC as then-President James Madison and his wife fled, to spend the night on a Quaker’s couch (true story, look it up) in Montgomery County.  I can’t imagine anything more humiliating than being chased out of your house in DC and then having to crash in MoCo.  The British commander, Robert Ross, had explicit orders to lay waste to the city; British soldiers piled furniture in the Capitol building, threw on some gunpowder, and burned it all to ashes.  The ensuing fire also destroyed the Library of Congress, which was only reconstituted when Ben Franklin sold his personal library to the US government.  The British then marched over to the White House, where they ate the meal the Madisons had left on the table, looted the place, and burned it to the ground.  According to history books, the British soldiers stuck around all night, “pouring fuel onto the smoldering flames” to keep the White House burning.  I think we can all agree that “pouring fuel” is a euphemism for urinating, right?  Well, it’s a good thing we got those evil Brits back, and burned down Buckingham Pala – oh wait.

tumblr_lrziio3QeT1qe6nzeTHE ANARCHIST BOMBINGS OF 1919

In 1919, a group of mostly Italian anarchists called Galleanists mailed two dozen bombs to various politicians, and followed that up by detonating eight large bombs in eight US cities simultaneously.  One of the bombs blew up in front of then-Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s house at 2132 R Street NW (which is now an orthodonist’s office).  The premature detonation killed the anarchist who was planting it; one of his limbs landed on the front doorstep of Mitchell’s neighbor, one Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Can you imagine if this happened today?  Eight bombs in eight cities?  One bungled shoe-bomb was enough to reorganize our entire transportation system.  If eight synchronized bombs went off, people wouldn’t even leave the house.  The streets would be deserted, even Trader Joe’s would have only moderately long lines.  It’s even weirder to think that this attack was carried out by anarchists.  Most bombers have an agenda, even if it’s stupid, i.e. ISIS and their “caliphate.”  But anarchists don’t want anything, they’re just like, “dude, there’s just too many rules, mannnnnnn!”  They’re like really violent stoners.  Also worth noting – the bombings were a response to a barrage of xenophobic laws passed by Congress that severely reduced immigration quotas, and even authorized deportation of certain immigrants on the grounds that some “extremists” might be hiding among them.  Weird how history repeats itself.

AP770311020_0THE HANAFI SIEGE (1977)

Wait, did you know that in 1977 Muslim terrorists stormed a government building and took almost a hundred fifty hostages?  I admit, I had no idea.  But yes, a dozen former Black Muslims stormed the Wilson Building, B’nai B’rith headquarters, and the Islamic Center of Washington with automatic weapons.  (In the chaos, a reporter was killed, and a young councilman named Marion Barry was shot in the chest with a shotgun pellet. Obviously, he survived.)  The leader of the group, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis (formerly known as Ernest McGhee of Indiana) claimed that the trial of five men who’d murdered his family had been rigged by the government, and this was his way of demanding redress; on his list of demands he even asked to be refunded $750 in court costs.  He also wanted the movie “Muhammad, Messenger of God” destroyed, because he really hated it.  (Everyone who paid to see “Ted 2” just nodded their heads.)  Further violence was avoided after a marathon 39-hour negotiation by the DC police, assisted by the ambassadors of Pakistan, Egypt, and Iran, who read the terrorists passages from the Koran about peace, non-violence, et cetera.  Time magazine, in an article covering the incident, opined that the relatively happy ending was “in part a tribute to the primary tactic U.S. law enforcement officials are now using to thwart terrorists — patience.”  Patience!  If this happened today they’d be carpet bombing the building within twenty minutes while Seal Team Six crawled in through the air ducts, “Die Hard”-style.


I don’t remember this either.  I really do think there’s some kind of collective amnesia that happens after these terror attacks.  Maybe that’s why everyone’s always saying “Never Forget.”  They should change it to “Don’t Forget This One Like You Forgot The Others!”  Anyway, in the mid-Eighties, a bunch of people named Marilyn, Linda, Susan, Timothy, Alan, and Elizabeth bombed several government buildings, including the Navy Yard here in DC, and Ft. McNair.  Yes, these were homegrown, middle-class Caucasian terrorists!  They were former members of the Weather Underground, the militant arm of the 60’s counterculture.  Man, how could you have great weed, a sexual revolution, a strong dollar, and a ridiculous jobs surplus, and still be like, “let’s blow stuff up!”  Crazy.  The music really was terrible, maybe that was it?  I definitely feeling like driving my car into a tree after like two minutes of a Janis Joplin song.  Anyway, no one was hurt in these bombings, because they always called ahead and warned everyone (so polite, these terrorists), but they still got put in prison for a long long time.

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