Putting Theory Into Practice
Bogota or Belfast; Kashmir, Pakistan or Colombo, Sri Lanka. No matter what far-flung terrorist hotspot Bruce Hoffman visited, he consoled himself with the thought that soon he’d return to the safety of the U.S. Sure, international terrorism on U.S. soil was a theoretical possibility--actually a probability, according to a vocal faction of terrorism scholars, Hoffman included. But talking theory and confronting reality are rarely twin experiences.
For Hoffman, reality on Sept. 11 was a hijacked jetliner slamming into the Pentagon just 400 yards away from his office, four floors full of panicked Rand Corp. employees, and a decision to be made: Was it more dangerous to stay inside, where windows threatened to shatter from the jet fuel explosion, or to evacuate?
Intimately familiar with a terrorist history of diversionary bombs--in which evacuees were “cut down by masonry and flying shards of glass” in subsequent explosions--he resisted evacuation until the building management forced everyone out. “I thought that as long as the building’s not under attack, going out in the street could be much worse if there’s a car bomb or truck bomb near the Pentagon,” explains Hoffman, director of Rand’s Washington office. “Letting people out could be exactly the wrong move.”
Hoffman, a fast-talking native of the Bronx and former devotee of the L.A. sun, is part of a tiny world of terrorism scholars suddenly in demand to solve the riddle, and parse the implications, of America’s most infamous day--one that not even these experts accurately predicted. His office is a testament to his 20-year devotion: On one wall is an autographed photo of a female Palestinian hijacker. On another is a newspaper headline from a 1990 European terrorism conference in which a last-minute security sweep uncovered a bomb. “It was an interesting comment on terrorist experts,” Hoffman recalls. “All of us thought it was a hoax. We went off to a bar, and read about it the next day.”
For years, these scholars have stubbornly plied their trade--writing obscure papers for obscure journals, splitting theoretical hairs at conferences in hotel ballrooms, testifying before Congress and advising government agencies--as the field went in and out of academic fashion. Now their names and faces are fast becoming familiar staples in the new coverage of America’s war on terrorism.
Martha Crenshaw, government professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, is so swamped with media calls that she now uses her answering machine to screen reporters. (“Please don’t call me a terrorism expert,” she pleads in her soft Alabama accent. “Haven’t you seen all those people on TV claiming to be that?”) There is also renewed book-buying interest in their work: Hoffman’s book on terrorism has sold out, and a third printing of the paperback edition is in the underway.
Suddenly, their theories are being tested in a real war between their country and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network. Like any academic field, this one brims with esoteric debates and disagreements. But now these once obscure questions seem terribly relevant to the nation and its future security: Are terrorists psychopathic fanatics or rational actors with precise political objectives? Do terrorists want attention more than dead bodies? And the big question: How willing and able are terrorist-enemies to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction against the American public?
In academia, the field of terrorism scholarship was always blue-collar grade, far less glamorous than the grand theorizing that went along with the study of, say, U.S.-Soviet relations and nuclear strategy in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the 1990s, terrorism studies, drawing heavily on military and intelligence history, was out of political sync, as campuses moved toward being “postmodern” and “deconstructionist.” Liberal writers attacked terrorism scholars for being shills of an American military policy that propped up right-wing terror squads while attacking leftist militants. (One person’s “terrorist” is another’s “freedom fighter”; academic conferences on the subject have been known to stall as impassioned scholars debate the definition of terrorism.)
Government funding, which supported the research of think tanks such as the Santa Monica-based Rand, has been equally capricious. “If you looked at the level of support over 30 years, it would look like the electrocardiogram of a healthy man--spikes followed by flat lines,” said Brian M. Jenkins, the first director of Rand’s three-decade-long investigation into terrorism, now a consultant. “There would be sudden, overwhelming focus, followed by being virtually ignored.”
Federal money for terrorism studies actually decreased after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “One of the reasons I left Rand in 1994 was that the Cold War had ended and everyone in official Washington was saying terrorism is going to disappear,” Hoffman recalls. “There was no terrorism funding, despite the  World Trade Center bombing, which was viewed as an aberration, not a harbinger.” Hoffman went to St. Andrews University in Scotland to organize an academic center for the study of terrorism, returning to run Rand’s Washington office in 1998.
Today there are about two dozen name scholars in the field--who join a host of former military officials, diplomats and spies in the media trying to “explain the seemingly inexplicable,” as one terrorism journal put it. The tightly knit circle reaches across the ocean to include such figures as Paul Wilkinson of Scotland’s St. Andrews University and Ehud Sprinzak, dean of the Lauder School of Government at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, whose regions have direct experience with terrorism.
The field also reaches across disciplines to include psychiatrists such as Jerrold M. Post of George Washington University. (Twenty years ago, psychiatrists posited that hijackers tended to be late walkers as children, with inner ear malfunctions--terrorism as a mental illness. Such theories have since been debunked, and psychiatric studies are far more sophisticated, looking at, for example, likely personality traits of terrorist recruits.) Religion experts such as Mark Juergensmeyer, UC Santa Barbara sociology professor and author of “Terror in the Mind of God,” add yet another facet.
Jenkins of Rand was among the first to focus on terrorism, though anyone who knew him as a young man might be surprised he chose this path. Jenkins attended the Art Institute of Chicago, obtained a fine arts degree and graduate degrees in history and humanities from UCLA, and attended a Guatemalan university on a Fulbright fellowship while practicing his first love--post-Impressionist landscape and figurative painting.
His interest in terrorists grew out of a less artistic side of his personality: He served as a captain of the Green Berets during the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic and later in Vietnam. During that period, he began writing military papers on subjects that fascinated him, particularly conspiracies and coups and guerrilla warfare.
In 1970, as politically motivated hijackings and kidnappings moved into the headlines, Jenkins, by then on staff at Rand, wrote a memo suggesting the rise of a new phenomenon, a form of “conflict different from conventional warfare, even guerrilla warfare.” After the 1972 massacre of nine Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the Nixon administration formed a cabinet-level committee on terrorism, and contracted Rand, which turned to Jenkins, for research. The issue then was how to address specific political demands by terrorists--"how to bargain for human life,” as Jenkins put it.
As terrorists’ acts evolved and became more complex, so too did the theorizing. In a 1975 book, Jenkins wrote a much-quoted aphorism: “Terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead.” Driving along Sunset Boulevard eight weeks after terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Jenkins insisted that he still stands by that proposition--even though the attacks killed more than 4,000 Americans.
The reality, says Jenkins, is that large-scale indiscriminate violence is becoming a reality of contemporary terrorism. (He says he warned the government last summer that “we need to prepare for it happening on U.S. soil.”) But the fact that the terrorists did not use large-scale weapons of mass destruction--inflicting tens of thousands of casualties, instead of thousands--suggests “not just technical limitations, but also self-imposed concerns about not alienating perceived constituents, not provoking a worldwide backlash that could endanger the organization.” The real question now, he asserts, is whether those constituents in the Islamic world have “developed a higher tolerance” for large-scale violence against America.
By contrast, another early leader in the field, Walter Laqueur, had a firm warning in his recent book, “The New Terrorism.” The world, he predicted, would witness the rise of “megaterrorism,” which he called “the consequences of aggressive madness in the age of high technology and the era of weapons of mass destruction.” Foreign scholars who have lived with terrorism, in particular, have tended to look at political motivation. The Hebrew University’s Sprinzak, for example, wrote last year that “most terrorists possess political objectives” and that mass casualties threaten the support and survival of terrorist organizations.
For a time, there was a school of thought arguing that scholars shouldn’t interview terrorists because they risked becoming mouthpieces for the militants’ causes. Though that argument has largely been settled, and most academics agree on the value of interviewing terrorists, not all of them go to the trouble. “The lack of interaction with actual ‘terrorists’ is evidenced in the literature,” complained one recent academic article. “Instead, the field has increasingly come to rely on secondary sources supplied from governments, intelligence agencies, law enforcement and ‘anti-extremism’ watchdogs.” (Though in classic politically correct academic fashion, the same article accused scholars of “outgroup stereotyping” of terrorists, implying that they deserve more respect.)
Hoffman, who says he has walked every street in Belfast to seek out terrorists, agrees that too few scholars meet their subjects. “I’m not saying people should be taking risks and chances, but you have to get uncomfortable,” says Hoffman, who prides himself on conducting firsthand research--"unlike some of my academic colleagues, whose idea of studying terrorism is from university common rooms and conferences overlooking Lake Como.... You can’t just discuss these issues over a glass of claret in a wine bar somewhere.”
Firsthand research can feed a scholarly view that terrorists are rational actors, not fanatics acting on directionless anger. “I’m always struck by how disturbingly normal most terrorists seem when one actually sits down and talks to them,” Hoffman wrote in his book, “Inside Terrorism.” “Rather than the wild-eyed fanatics or crazed killers we have been conditioned to expect, many are in fact highly articulate and extremely thoughtful individuals for whom terrorism is (or was) an entirely rational choice.”
“‘Disturbingly normal’ isn’t at all meant to endorse or justify their violence,” Hoffman adds in an interview. “But I’ve always believed that if you don’t understand your enemy, you can’t effectively counter them. I think too often, in the wake of Sept. 11, there is this tendency to write off terrorists as mindless irrational fanatics.” Still, even Hoffman concedes that the “insights” gained from interviewing terrorists can be limited. Last year, when he tried to engage in a dialogue with a very well-educated Middle Eastern terrorist, the man repeatedly shouted him down.
Wesleyan’s Martha Crenshaw was one scholar who pioneered the idea that there was “strategic logic” behind terrorist actions--an argument that infuriates government officials and agents on the front lines of combating terrorism. “People would feel mostly indignant, they would get upset when we said you have to understand the motivations of terrorists,” Crenshaw says. “But from our point of view, it’s an analytic test. The government is sometimes quite eager to work toward profiling; we say there is no one profile. We see the complexities.”
Of course, more than any event, Sept. 11 has challenged the “rational cause” argument. Still, Hoffman insists that Bin Laden--such as Jewish terrorists fighting British rule in Palestine, Palestinian terrorists fighting for a homeland, or the ANC seeking to undermine South Africa’s apartheid--has specific political goals in mind.
“Narrowly, his goal was to get Western and U.S. and crusader forces out of Saudi Arabia,” Hoffman says. “But I think he found he wasn’t succeeding in that goal. It was too narrow--the same way the Islamic jihad in Egypt wasn’t succeeding when it was trying to make an Islamic government in Egypt. Bin Laden hit on the idea of making a broader strategy, a global jihad. At the end of the day, Bin Laden would like some sort of government. But [unlike other terrorists] he has broader goals that go beyond one country.”
Before Sept. 11, a number of scholars had written that the religious motivations were leading to more lethal forms of terrorism. Some posited that this would lead to mass casualties, as terrorists resorted to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Others did not buy into this worst-case scenario--but they didn’t predict that Bin Laden would use commercial jetliners as missiles, either.Hoffman, for one, admits to being wrong about Bin Laden’s intentions. “I thought what Bin Laden was doing was psychological warfare, that he was making outlandish threats, bragging,” Hoffman says. “A terrorist once told me, ‘Look, if I can get something for nothing, that’s the best thing; I don’t have to lift a finger.’ So I began saying we shouldn’t take everything terrorists are saying at their word.”
Martha Crenshaw has been writing about terrorism from her post at Wesleyan University since the 1970s. Her focus began by accident, when her dissertation about Algerian militants revolting against the French in the 1950s led to an interest in revolutionary terrorism. At that time, she recalled, she was one of the few people who wrote on terrorism at all.
Since then, she has produced a steady stream of books with titles such as “Terrorism in Context” and “Terrorism, Legitimacy and Power.” She sits on both boards of the two main academic journals on terrorism. She attends conferences on terrorism. Yet the Sept. 11 attacks shook her to the core.
“I was quite stunned,” she says. “We deal with these nightmare scenarios in theory. Still, it was like a physical blow. Reality is different from discussing a scenario.” Instead of thinking about theory, Crenshaw was faced with the real-life problem of how to comfort students at her Connecticut university--many from New York, many with parents in or around the crash site. Likewise, Bruce Hoffman, wearing two macrame bracelets in red white and blue, looks out the window of his office adjacent to the Pentagon and thinks about the fear he saw in the faces of his employees the day of the attacks--when theory met reality. He describes a “dull ache” he still feels in his gut every day and his visceral--versus intellectual--understanding of the “abject fear and intimidation” terrorists want to achieve. He and his family have developed an emergency plan similar to the one they followed living under the threat of Southern California earthquakes.
Hoffman’s own sense of security on American soil has been shattered. “That’s the hardest thing,” he says. On research trips “I had met people who had horrible things done to them--or had done horrible things to people. So it wasn’t abstract and theoretical.
“But it’s not the same when it’s your own country, and your own home. It was emotionally devastating.”