Teaching About Terrorism

by David French

The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed three professors who teach classes on terrorism, and I’ve got to say . . . I want more. I want to hear more from these professors, and I want more instruction about terrorism on campus. The short interview itself was tantalizing. There were the obligatory “shades of gray” comments and notations of the (obvious) truth that contemporary jihadists hardly invented terrorist violence, but there was also a brief discussion of the sheer horror of terrorism (something I saw first-hand in Iraq) that told me these professors were grappling with terrorism as a reality and not as an abstract or romanticized historical and ideological concept.

We’re fighting a war against jihadists in an atmosphere of staggering popular, media, academic, and governmental ignorance. We constantly hear authoritative statements that any given military action “recruits terrorists” or that poverty “breeds terrorism” or that terrorism gives voice to the voiceless . . . statements that betray fundamental ignorance of the actual way that terrorists join movements, the relative prosperity of many contemporary terrorists, and the presence of multiple, viable political alternatives to terror. In conversation after conversation, I find myself rebutting casual observations even by educated and informed citizens about, for example, the role of martyrdom in the al-Qaeda mindset, the commitment of the terrorist foot soldier to the cause, and even the religious and ideological purity of many real-life terrorists.

Perhaps this is yet another symptom of a military that is increasingly walled-off from the civilian population, but it is striking that our nation lives in such ignorance even as hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens have had direct, personal contact with terrorist violence and with jihadist cultures. Even using unclassified information, articulate and informed vets could conceivably pack lecture halls and provide vivid information about contemporary terrorists’ beliefs, habits, and motivations. I realize that we may lack the historical knowledge of many professors, but the historical analysis is but one aspect of understanding contemporary terrorism, and learning about Jewish zealots or Hindu thugs (to take examples from the interview) only gets you partway to analyzing an al-Qaeda suicide bomber in Iraq or a Taliban commander holed up in Northwest Pakistan.

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