Traditionally, research on terrorism explores responses to extremist violence. In his latest book, the School of Public Affairs’ Brian Forst goes a step further, to examine the roots of terrorism, and policies for its prevention.
“In virtually every endeavor, there’s a supply side and a demand side,” explains the author of Terrorism, Crime and Public Policy. “To this point, the focus has been on the supply of terrorists: Who are they, and where do they come from?
“What is missing is a discussion of the demand side of things: Why do people become extremists, and why do they select the targets that they do?”
Forst, professor of justice, law and society, says terrorists are drawn to targets that generate the most fear. What made Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden so terrifying “was that he went after targets once thought invincible.”
In order to prevent terrorism, Forst says we must learn to manage our fear of “the other”—something that requires a better understanding of culture, politics, history, and religion, all topics explored in his book.
“We fear what we don’t understand,” he explains. “Instead of falling back on our primal fear instincts, we need to step back, take a breath, and reflect in order to avoid behaving badly.”
Forst contends that many elements of “the war on terror”—the United States’ military, political, and ideological response to 9/11—have grown out of this primal fear, thus creating more terrorists than it has eliminated.
“The ‘war on terror’ has elevated extremists to warriors. They’re not warriors, they’re thugs,” he says.
Forst’s book also offers two historical trajectories that shape terrorism: a “clash of civilizations” and globalization.
Proposed by political scientist Samuel Huntington in the early ’90s, the clash of civilizations emphasizes a lack of harmony, aggression, and a need to defend against “the other.” Forst criticizes the theory, arguing that it’s “a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.”
“If we are to be in the business of making prophecies that shape the course of the future, it makes infinitely more sense to create prophecies of contagious friendship through dialogue and mutual understanding than to base policy on predictions of Armageddon,” he says.
In order to rebuild America’s standing in the world and disrupt or prevent future acts of violence, Forst suggests we “begin to build bridges of mutual understanding and friendship that will induce others to work against terrorists rather than on their behalf.”
“We need to discover our common humanity,” he continues. “Americans and Muslims have the same aspirations, hopes, and fears. We all care about the health and security of our families. Those are the common roots that bind us all together.”