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November 16, 2007

Comments

Shane Barclay

While I agree that Stern’s conclusion is a bit narrow-sighted because it focuses on the US, I think that her narrow-sightedness is not such a bad thing. She outlines in the book how there has been a shift in the focus of terrorist groups from regional targets to Western targets. Hatred of the US unites terrorists and the US provides attractive potential targets. For the very reason that the US is hated—essentially jealousy of our extraordinary amounts of resources of all kinds—the US should be able to devise a way to minimize terrorist attacks.

Stern’s assertion that “[The US] needs to become as savvy at psychological warfare as [the terrorists] are” is a good start to a solution. The leaders of extremist groups engage in psychological warfare with their members and their enemies. The US, on the other hand, has used force to combat terrorists. Attacks on terrorists by the US are blessings-in-disguise to terrorist leaders because they make recruitment much easier and more successful. For the terrorists there is good and there is evil with nothing in between, and with each attack on them the line between good and evil becomes more defined. In order to combat terrorism without perpetuating the violence, the US needs to reconsider their plan of attack, even if it means making concessions. Stern is right when she says that the US “should change policies that no longer serve our interests or are inconsistent with out values, even if those happen to be policies that the terrorists demand.”

Amitha Harichandran

First I believe that Stern must be applauded for her courage in making the effort to speak with these terrorists, but also in writing a book that offers a view that differs so greatly from the norm. As Kenichiro states, she allows us to view terrorists as individuals rather than as group, and in this way humanizes them. We have been taught to simply look at the actions of terrorists, without giving any thought to the reasons behind their actions. She is able to find that it is not a desire to be evil, but rather feelings of humiliation and insecurity that allow these groups to recruit young minds. These young boys are made to think that the evil they are performing is justified as the opponent has committed their own evil doings. Stern’s ability to provide such insight into this untouched area is incredible, and the view she offers is well-supported.

One other aspect that I liked with Stern’s work was that she took the time to look at not only Islamic terrorists, but Christian and Jewish terrorists as well. Since September 11th, we have been so focused on Islamic terrorists that we fail to acknowledge that terrorism is ubiquitous. She stresses that while there are difference between these groups, mainly in who they consider to be the enemy, the similarities dominate these differences.

While Vera feels that it was not necessary for Stern to go to such extremes to write her book, I feel it lends credibility to her argument. I also believe that while some details may seem irrelevant to the message of the book, such as describing their beautiful wives, it serves Stern’s purpose of making us think of these terrorists as humans. Her incredibly detailed story lines and insight into her own journey and feelings, allow the reader to follow her train of thought. Overall, I think Stern’s work is commendable and provides an important view into something that is so unexplored.

Kinzie Kramer

While I did find the interviews and personal stories in this book fascinating, I must agree with previous commentators that this book did not bring any new light to the issue of terrorism. As Vera said, of course “people who are alienated and humiliated will tend to be attracted to extremist organizations.” Of course issues arise when people selectively read history. Of course for people to continue participating in these groups there has to be an addictive element. But I think the most disappointing part of the book was the conclusion: “We need to respond- not just with guns- but by seeking to create confusion, conflict, and competition among terrorists and between terrorists and their sponsors and sympathizers” (296). Of course we need to infiltrate terrorist networks! That seems pretty obvious. And at the end of a 300-page book, for that to be the final U.S. Policy recommendation is quite a disappointment.

While reading, one point that stood out to me that seemed to be dealt with haphazardly was the discussion of fear. Stern initially says that terrorists have a “fear of a godless universe of chaos” (xix) and then explains away at how terrorists have such deep faith in God and that they are doing God’s work. How can a person be afraid of a godless universe, but at the same time have such intense faith in God that they think their actions are justified in God’s eyes? It doesn’t exactly make sense. Either that person is afraid of a godless universe, and thus does not act in the name of God because they question whether God exists. Or a person intensely believes in God and manages to convince his/her self that he/she is doing God’s work, whatever that might happen to be. It seems to me that a person’s fear wouldn’t go both ways.

Anthony Yates

I began upon Stern’s book with reservations, and left with a few. She thrives through her micro-level approach, which is not impeded by its admitted bias, but rather enhanced, as she is ever cognizant of the factors which distort the information she extracts from terrorists, and thus from misinformation can conjecture the hidden reality. While I personally find Jessica Stern’s writing smug and condescending (at times to the extent that it is slightly nauseating [cf. her mocking interview with Kerry Noble]), I think Terror in the Name of God accomplishes a very important task---giving us the eyes of a terrorist to look at the world around us.

The first half of the book explores the reasons why individuals or collective entities turn to terrorism. Here she is extremely effective. It is very clear in her introduction that she is attentive to the power of language, a theme which will prevail in the book; more importantly, however, it is by carefully breaking down and defining terror at the very outset of her work that she creates the framework in which she builds her project. She creates a flexible, working definition of terror, namely, “an act or threat of violence against noncombatants with the objective of exacting revenge, intimidating, or otherwise influencing an audience.” This mold is neither too rigid to admit the perpetrators of acts of domestic terror at home, such as antiabortionists, to the class of groups we tend to consider the “real terrorists,” like Islamic jihadi sects, nor is too loose to admit simple murderers. This definition, then, allows her to analyze the risk factors (alienation, humiliation, etc.) among potential terrorists at home and abroad, and so extract and make manifest the similarities between them.

The conclusions she draws may be startling for some Americans. The contributing factors on a fellow citizen’s path to religious terror are little different from those of a Muslim in Egypt or Afghanistan. Stern thus transplants terrorism from obscure, dusty deserts to our own backyards, and forces upon us introspection; indeed, we must consider that perhaps we are not so very different from them. This can be an extraordinarily difficult and trying experience. It is infinitely easier to demonize, reasoning that their foreign garb and beards and unfamiliar tongue cover some inhuman evil, the likes of which an ordinary American lacks even the capability.

Did anyone/everyone see 300? This is the epitomic example of precisely this kind of distortion. The impeccably heroic Spartans, outnumbered more than a thousand to a man, battle to defend their homeland against the invading Persian Empire. In contrast to the Spartans who spend a great deal of time flexing pectoral muscles and acting virtuous, the Persians are depicted as horrific monsters, twisted and deformed, the physical incarnation of evil. In reality, the Spartans opponents are a cultural mix of various races, many of them peoples conquered and forced into the service of the Persian army; indeed, they are victims just as the Spartans are to become. But this dehumanizing technique allows the viewer to picture it as the symbolic struggle of good and evil, without the humanity of the “enemy” fuzzying this clear-cut vision. It should come as no surprise, then, that many interpreted this movie in a modern political context, as a parable to United States War on Terror, and earning it a condemnation by the Iranian government.

The point is that demonization prevents us from empathizing with the terrorists, and from identifying with their personal and collective struggles. Stern stresses the significance of this empathy in seeking to understand the terrorist mind, and when we force it upon ourselves as she did, it is hard not to empathize at least on some level with the motives for terror. In an increasingly complicated world, one in which the lines between immoral and moral are blurry and vague, and as Stern points out, in which there is increasing complexity in even defining “noncombatant,” it is easy to see the appeal in a faith which defines the world concisely---black and white, us and them.

The Islamic world, she writes, is a more vulnerable to terror because the poor conditions, the poverty, the oppression, and presence of a government-endorsed scapegoat in the United States. They feel exploited and humiliated by the Western world, and to a degree, rightfully so. Stern shows us that it is these factors we must battle if we are to combat terrorism effectively. Until the conditions are ameliorated and the perception of the United States and the rest of the Western world is drastically altered, the Islamic nations will continue to be fertile breeding grounds for terrorists of the next generation.

At last I arrive at the second half of her book, and I will attempt brevity here. I believe she recognizes the enormous problems with, or perhaps even impossibility of, battling terror on a purely (relatively) military level. It seems likely that for this reason she denounced the Iraqi War. The terrorist organizations have evolved into multi-tiered, complex organizations which are continuously technologically innovative in their avoidance of direct military conflict. Stern carefully details in her conclusion on pages 289-292 a further laundry list of reasons why military action cannot prevail alone. Moreover, she is well aware that these small groups are capable of greater harm than ever due to growing rate at which they are gaining access to weapons of mass destruction (biological or atomic), a problem which I believe one of the fatal flaws with Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History.”

But what to do from here? Stern seems to say we must become better at ideological manipulation than the terrorists. Her vague suggestion without a real, definitive solution seriously detracts from accomplishing the project. However, she has obtained a great deal of revolutionary data from her first-hand experiences, and exposes much about both the individual and the terrorist organization. While her analysis and resulting conclusions may be trivial, she has certainly opened the eyes of the public (and perhaps a less aware, less analytically-minded general populace is the intended target) and established some new conceptual pathways in which others may follow.

Nick Nejad

Stern did not contribute any additional sense to me about the world of the Taliban and al Qaeda because she did not look nearly enough into why they believe what they do. She does a good job of understanding some of the crowd mentality and psychological factors which play a role in terrorist groups, but these human tendencies have been well covered before. (See Cialdini’s “Influence”, and Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd”) But behind every one of these groups there is a goal, an interest, that is seeking to be fulfilled. Throughout the book numerous types of terrorist groups or cults are mentioned. Some of their goals are ridiculous. For example, the CSA was trying to hasten the Apocalypse. Now perhaps their leader actually believed in this, in which case I would say that is a terrible and fruitless goal and I would be totally against such an organization. There is some evidence in Stern’s writing though that may suggest that there were material reasons for starting this movement. For example, it is mentioned that the group believed in “sharing property and/or signing it over to the group upon admission, … no compensation for labor, communal work efforts…” (20) Now for some of the other groups the goal is more clear. For example, the antiabortionist movement. I understand what they believe because it is much more obvious- that a fetus is a human life, and anything preventing its birth is no different than murder. Whether I choose to agree with that stance or not is more up to me.

But when it comes to the Islamic terrorist groups, the identification of their goals is unclear. Stern makes vague references to these terrorist groups being a fight against equality, consumerism, capitalism, but she never really delves into understanding the situation. Only near the very end does she spend a little time on the question “why do they hate us?” and her description is too simple to really understand the situation. The reason I say this is important is because frankly, the recent course of our country confuses me. There were the wars we started in Iraq and Afghanistan on really very flimsy grounds. Many people are now starting to question why exactly we were there in the first place. And there is a lot of descriptions in the news and from the government of Iran being a threat, and yet I’ve researched into it and I’ve heard both sides and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is mostly bogus. In his recent speech at Columbia University, Ahmadinejad told the audience to look for themselves at the IAEA report on Iran. It will say that they are fully complying with them and everything they are doing is peaceful. I double checked this and it is true. Yet all we hear about on the news is this imminent threat that they are going nuclear. It is enough to make me question whether maybe we really do have other motives in the Middle East, and maybe the terrorists have some basis to their belief that we are meddling in their affairs.

Danielle Mahan

While Stern's book opens as a promising insight into the world of terrorism, I have to agree with many of my classmates that her analysis seemed weak and incomplete. The vagueness of her policy suggestions render her work almost useless. She recognizes the factors from where terrorism usually stems -- alienation, humiliation, demographics, history, and territory -- but doesn't explore concrete resolutions to these serious issues.
Another problem, that Hye Jin Lee and Serena also talk about, is the inutility of an American analysis of the problem of growing numbers of Islamic terrorist groups. One of the most fundamental aspects of terrorists groups is their aversion to globalization which contributes to their feelings of alienation and of hate toward the Other. Is an American policy attempting to change terrorists' regard for globalization and integration consistent with national sovereignty and democracy? Stern seems to think that it is. She advocates promotion of public education everywhere and increased efforts to integrate Muslim communities not only regionally, but globally. While this sounds very nice, once again, Stern gives no practical suggestions of implementation. "Emphasizing tolerance, empathy, and courage" will not stop terrorists or diminish their coterie. The kind of field work that she has done should enable her to address the patterns in terrorist sociology that she has noted. How do we strip "evil" leaders and operatives of their economic and social power over the vunerable in their community? How do we inspire and empower a sterotypical suicide bomber to believe there are alternative options? In the meantime, how do we limit their access to means of destructive technology? Dealing with factors terrority, what is a practical policy that would satisfy all groups? History's legacy will only start to mitigate its negative influence on terrorists when all other factors are addressed and they have hope for the future.

John Keh

Jessica Stern brings up many valid points in her arguments. She analyzes these terrorist groups with great skill and detail. She is able to break down and analyze the techniques which the leaders of these terrorist sects use to control their henchmen. Instilling violent terrorist thoughts and acts into the youth in order to coax them into the cause. I believe that religious extremists can never truly be purged from our population as long as religion exists. But to compare these religious fanatics to those of the Thirty Year’s War or the one’s that slaughtered 20,000 Protestants in Paris to celebrate St. Bartholomew's Day would be an insult to the modern day terrorists. The modern day terrorists are a lot more careful and must use subterfuge and misdirection in order to achieve their goals rather than sheer force. Religious fanaticism has lost much of its appeal. One reason that these terrorists are so effective is because, even though they have lost much popular support, they have more effective tools and weapons to utilize for striking fear into the hearts of the masses. Mass media is currently one of their most powerful tools. It reaches out to every person in the world and is able to instill fear and terror. Terrorists groups will continue to evolve as society progresses, and there is no cure, no purge that any government can do to stop them.

pierre mouillon

I do agree with Vera that with what happened in the world for the last 25 years everybody should know a lot about Terrorism. However, I do think that Jessica Stern does a really good job in her book to deepen people thoughts. I do not think like Vera said that she is only trying to say what is terrorism, where it comes from or how does it work. Indeed, Stern is focusing on a particular aspect of Terrorism (based on religion) and she shows and explains how much it differs from other Terrorism. We all know that religious terrorism defines these public acts of violence where the motivation, the explanation and organization is given by the religion itself. Religious militancy is also characterized by an eternal deep dualism where the “breaking line” separates two categories completely opposite (like “Them” and “Us” or “faithful” and “unfaithful”). Stern after interviewing numerous activists said that she could distinguish religious terrorists from others because they are absolutely persuaded of acting well. They show extreme confidence compared to others. They imagine themselves enrolled in a battle between the Good and Evil; thus their religion allows them to use force because it is unthinkable to bow down to Evil. For Stern this is the reason why they are most like likely ready to use such extreme violence (she compares religious terrorism to holy war). A particular and scary feature of that kind of terrorism is that with religious similarities it can regroup a large number of people very quickly (Stern uses the term “spiritually intoxicated” to characterize these fanatics having for only goal the accomplishment of their cause). I like the comparison with Holy war as it could be a way to explain The US failure supporting financially islamic terrorists organizations in Afghanistan to fight the soviet occupation. Indeed, I think such organizations have no limit and are always looking for new accomplishments. Indeed, I think that religious terrorism can give psychological dependance and violence under such conditions lead to even more violence. However i would agree on Vera to the point that even if Sterns provides greater understanding Terrorism, she fails in proposing ideas to fight it. For years now, enormous efforts were made mostly by the US to find terrorist leaders and destroy their organizations; military forces was the main way used to end it but it does not seem to be the right answer for “international terrorism” as it costs a lot of money, lot of lives taken and Terrorism looks far from disappearing. In fact, it creates i think even more suffering and humiliation in the population where terrorism emerged which could make it easier for them to get new recruits.

Vaclav Burger

I can relate to many of the ideas that Stern studies in her work about the mind and psychology of a terrorist and also about the political, economical, and sociological issues that coincide with it. One issue that she talks about is the organization of terrorist groups, which feed off of the feelings of oppression that many young people have. The leaders of these groups recruit young people that want an alternative lifestyle and are vulnerable to a higher calling for example that Al Qaeda offers. With the example of Al Qaeda, Stern talks about the problems the US has with finding and disrupting the organization, which leads Stern to suggesting alternative for dealing with terrorist groups. It seems that the current methods really play into what many terrorist organizations use to recruit new members, so it may be time to use more unorthodox methods.
Another point Stern makes is quite simple, but still hard to grasp, is that terrorist groups are much smaller than believed. Her mention of the word individual as a better correlation to terrorist as opposed to an organization is impressive because it really attacks a country’s decision like the US decision to go to war with Iraq. Stern is very clear about her point of individual terrorists, which creates a new dimension for governments to assess in a sense that it could have been more positive to work more with Iraq to disband Al Qaeda, than to force that idea on them. In looking back at the ideas of Fukuyama, we can see diverging ideas contributing to continued history are very much a part of Sterns ideas because of the conflicts the US faces today with Iraq; rather than any sort of convergence toward the end of history.

Michael Pimentel

Given her exhaustive study of religious extremism and the unique opportunities she was afforded, Stern's writing culminates to an uninteresting, rather weak conclusion. In studying the psyche of terrorists, for example, she plainly attests: "When I began this project, I could not understand why the killers I met seemed spiritually intoxicated. Now, I think I understand. They seem that way because they are." While it is not my place to critique the writing abilities of a Harvard lecturer, there seems to be something inherently wrong with a study that ends with a proclamation so readily apparent.

That aside, I will not fail to give credit where credit is due. Stern should be applauded for her prescription for American Foreign Policy and for elucidating the human desires and needs that lead individuals to become part of terrorist organizations. By portraying terrorism as a product of social conditions and personal follies, and through demonstrating in her discourse on Christian extremism that we’re all at risk of falling victim to terrorist indoctrination, Stern makes it possible to consider policy actions which aren't militaristic in nature; the picture she paints is not one of us and them. While what she proposes is nothing new to progressive policy advocates, a book with such mainstream appeal has the potential to open the minds of right of center individuals who see the pacifism and diplomacy championed by the left as a concession to terrorist groups. Stern shows that our current policies only further exacerbate the problems we face and make it easier for terrorist organizations to harvest youth. Lastly, Stern opens to floor to the issue of American intervention in international affairs. Stern demonstrates that perhaps the best way to squelch terrorism is to prevent it from coming to be through education and the outsourcing of wealth; we must realize that America is often seen as the oppressor. Again, these positions aren’t at all new, but coming from someone with first hand experience with terrorist groups, they may hold more weight.

Finally, in regard to whether or not Stern makes sense of the conceptual world of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their ilk, I must endorse the position that she missed the mark. As Thomas pointed out, Stern spends a great deal of time analyzing what makes terrorism attractive to its recruits, but inadequately addresses what serves as motivation for leaders of terrorist organizations. Surely, someone with such a tremendous opportunity to talk one on one with terrorist aggressors should be able to offer us an understanding of terrorism that extends beyond what could be found on the ABC Nightly News. Furthermore, the policies the author suggests should be better thought out; Stern should have analyzed the policy solutions en route to the various terrorist hotspots and come up with detailed plans for how these solutions could actually be put into place.

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