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Updated 5:30 PM January 20, 2005
 

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  Josh Rosenthal Education Fund Lecture
Why terrorists think they are doing more good than harm

Most religious terrorists are not deranged, but they have been conditioned to believe the world can be made better through terror and murder, says a Harvard University expert who will speak next week at U-M.
Stern (Photo courtesy Jessica Stern)

Jessica Stern, an expert in the motivations and causes behind terrorist movements, says such acts result from repression, poverty and alienation, as the perpetrators hope to simplify their lives in a complicated world.

In the case of the Palestinians, she says, "It is not just the violence; it is the pernicious effect of repeated humiliations that add up to a feeling of nearly unbearable despair."

Stern will give the Josh Rosenthal Education Fund Lecture Jan. 27 in the Michigan League's Vandenberg Room. The 3:30 p.m. event, sponsored by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, is free and open to the public.

The lecture honors Rosenthal, a 1979 alumnus who was killed Sept. 11, 2001, in the World Trade Center attacks. His mother, Marilynn Rosenthal, said in the 3-1/2 years since 9/11, the country's "need for careful and balanced information and insight is greater than ever."

"While the 9/11 Commission has produced a report, that report is marred by political consensus, political negotiations and political sensitivities," says Rosenthal, professor emerita of behavioral sciences at U-M-Dearborn.

"It is within the academic world that America has the best chance to develop the most balanced understanding of complex social events."

Stern has written many books and articles on terrorism and weapons of destruction, including "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill" and "The Ultimate Terrorists."

"She understands some of the key causal factors behind the current wave of global terrorism that has caught so many by surprise," says Rebecca Blank, Ford School dean.

Stern served on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council staff from 1994-95, where she was responsible for issues related to nuclear terrorism. A former fellow on terrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations, her work inspired Nicole Kidman's lead character in "The Peacemaker"—a 1997 movie about a U.S. Army colonel and the civilian woman who supervised him in tracking stolen Russian nuclear weapons before they're used by terrorists.

It also was in 1997 that Stern began arranging interviews with known terrorists, talking to them in places such as a Texas trailer park and a Pakistani prison.

"I thought 'why don't I just call them,'" she says. "I knew it was a bit unorthodox."

While conducting face-to-face interviews, Stern tried not to be fearful. Terrorists often are male chauvinists, she says, who considered her "unthreatening and dumb." This proved beneficial in getting them to open up about their personal lives, she says. Some terrorists tried to recruit her or sought financial contributions for their groups.

Stern spent five years interviewing Christian, Jewish and Muslim extremists and found a common trait—they were not driven by rage or lunacy, but by a deep faith in their causes and the possibility of transforming the world through violence, she says. Leaders of the terrorist group often exploited this faith and sense of humiliation, turning confused people into killers, Stern says.

"It's not a question of taking stock of eliminating these organizations, as the current administration has focused on, but also focusing on their new recruits," she says.

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