The academics of terrorism
Princeton professors are exploring in their research
By Melissa Harvis Renny '03
Even before the U.S. watched the twin towers fall, Princeton faculty
members were working to stop terrorism around the globe.
The psychology department researched American right-wing extremists,
from militias to white supremacists, trying to understand what drove
them to violence. In the Woodrow Wilson School, professors worked
to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and the Soviet
Union so that these weapons would not fall into the wrong hands.
Professors in the politics department studied terrorist organizations
in Africa in relation to the U.S. embassy bombings of 1998, examining
why certain countries were havens for terrorists.
Since the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Princeton faculty members
have continued their work, applying it to the constant, current
threat of terrorism in the U.S. Through papers, lectures, and legislation,
Princeton University is helping to fight the war on terrorism.
"Terrorism depends on a viewpoint," said Jon Drummond,
a graduate student in the social psychology department who is doing
research on what motivates terrorists. "I try to look and
see how the world appears through the eyes of the terrorists."
In order to help the government better understand the way that
terrorists think, Drummond and Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology
and public affairs, attended an FBI conference in February on countering
terrorism. At the conference, researchers, academic scholars, and
personnel from justice, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies
combined their knowledge on different aspects of terrorism and made
recommendations to the FBI.
Drummond and Shafir also provided input to Senator Ron Wyden's
(D-Ore.) Science and Technology Emergency Mobilization Act. This
bill would create a science and technology equivalent to the National
Guard, mobilizing academics and security experts to work together
for U.S. security.
"I think that one of the lessons learned from September
11 is that just the process or just the intention to mobilize and
bring to bear all applicable knowledge was probably lacking in many
ways," Drummond said.
On campus, Drummond is working with John Darley, a professor of
psychology and public affairs, on a theory that explains how people
come to extreme views. Called "deviant legitimation,"
this theory asserts that terrorists move toward violence through
a series of recognizable steps over time that leads them to lose
faith in their establishment or government, and then to justify
their use of violence. Drummond stressed that terrorists do not
become violent overnight; rather it is a long, slow process full
of thwarted efforts.
"You can't understand why this [September 11] happened
until you see the way that the world looks through the eyes of those
people," Drummond said.
Frederick Hitz '61, director of the Woodrow Wilson School's
Project on International Intelligence, agrees that seeing the world
through the eyes of the terrorists is crucial. The Inspector General
of the CIA from 1990 through 1998, Hitz claims that before the CIA
can change its rules of operation in regard to terrorism, it needs
to understand terrorist cultures.
"What we really need to do is strengthen the cadre of analysts
and intelligence collectors who work on these issues, because it
seems to me there is not really much excuse for not knowing the
threat that fundamentalist Islam and disgruntled citizens of the
Middle East pose to the U.S. as the big target, and to the West
in general, because of our prosperity and success and their poverty
and hopelessness," he said.
In a recent article for the Harvard Journal of Law and Public
Policy, Hitz assessed the pros and cons of using of spies to gather
international information, giving the CIA law enforcement powers,
allowing assassinations during peacetime, and recruiting journalists
and academics as agents. Hitz stressed the need to preserve U.S.
citizens' constitutional rights while protecting the country
from terrorist threats.
The nuclear threat
Protecting the U.S. from terrorist threats is something Frank
von Hippel, director of the Program in Science and Global Security
at the Woodrow Wilson School, has done for years. As the former
assistant director for national security in the White House Office
of Science and Technology, and the chairman of the Federation of
American Scientists, von Hippel holds a strong belief that nuclear
weapons are intrinsically terrorist weapons.
"Nuclear weapons are weapons of terror whether countries
own them or terrorists own them," he said.
In the days following the September 11 attack, von Hippel and
his colleagues on the Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory
Council (RANSAC) sent a letter to President Bush and Russian President
Vladimir Putin, urging the leaders to prevent terrorists from gaining
access to nuclear weapons. The letter called on the U.S. and Russia
to revive underfunded programs that would eliminate nuclear materials
left over from the cold war, because "inadequately secured
nuclear material anywhere is a threat to all nations everywhere."
Von Hippel expressed specific concerns about Pakistan's
stockpile of weapon-grade uranium in an article for the Journal
of the Federation of American Scientists. Weapon-grade uranium is
highly enriched uranium that, von Hippel said, educated terrorists
could turn into a gun type nuclear explosive like the one the U,S,
used on Hiroshima during World War II. In the article, Von Hippel
made a series of recommendations that included increasing the security
of fissile material, increasing transparency between countries about
the size of their nuclear stockpiles, ending the production of Plutonium
and highly enriched uranium (HEU), and disposing of excess stocks.
In order to make these recommendations realities, von Hippel and
his colleagues worked with a series of NGOs (non-governmental organizations)
to reverse the Bush administration's initial decision to
cut funding for these programs. After September 11, when the administration
received $40 billion supplemental to the fiscal budget, von Hippel
and his colleagues lobbied so that a portion of this money would
go to these key programs. Due to their efforts, the administration
reevaluated the budget and allocated $250 million of the money toward
programs with Russia that will reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.
While this money will help programs in need, the struggle to insure
safety is far from over. Von Hippel is currently working with graduate
students in the Woodrow Wilson School on protection against weapons
of mass destruction. One method of protection they are researching
is potassium iodide pills. When a nuclear explosion occurs, radioactive
iodide is inhaled and goes directly to the thyroid gland, increasing
the chance of thyroid cancer. By saturating the thyroid with nonradioactive
iodide ñ the potassium iodide pills ñ people can protect
themselves from the health effects of a nuclear catastrophe.
Zia Mian, a colleague of von Hippel's in the Woodrow Wilson
School, is examining the distribution of these potassium iodide
pills in the areas around nuclear reactors as a part of his task
force this semester. Mian's task force will examine the possible
effects of terrorism on nuclear power plants, using three power
plants in New Jersey for models.
"An attack on a nuclear power station can be potentially
catastrophic," Mian said. "A nuclear power station
is a fixed nuclear weapon of sorts."
While professors in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Psychology
Department have been able to work for immediate change, other professors
have had a more difficult time finding their place in the torrent
of research on terrorism. Jeffrey Herbst '83, chair of the
politics fepartment, claims that academics have had a particularly
hard time focusing their work since September 11.
"I think academics are particularly challenged when the
world changes like it did on September 11, and we want to be relevant
to day-to-day controversies, but we have to stick to what I think
is our comparative advantage, which is trying to put these things
in larger context, and trying to think about more than what's
going to happen in the next 48 or 72 hours," Herbst said.
Herbst will put the attacks in a larger context in a conference
he is planning for late September that will focus on the heterogeneity
of views in the Islamic world. He sees the conference as a platform
to expose the U.S. to ideas in the Muslim world that may not be
"The basic idea is that a lot of people in Muslim countries
have all kinds of notions about democracy, about terrorism and the
like, and they don't have a very big voice in these countries
because the governments are authoritarian and because the fundamentalists
in many cases, have crowded them out or intimidated them,"
A year after the terrorist attacks, this conference will provide
testimony to Princeton faculty's work toward a greater understanding
of Islamic cultures, work that, they hope, will prevent terrorism
from occurring in the future.