Terrorism at a distance

Just when he thought he had made up his mind, Brett Bonfield found himself thinking things over again. A Web developer for Development and Alumni Relations, Bonfield was just one of several hundreds who packed into Irvine Auditorium Sept. 13 for the Responding to Terrorism symposium.

Bonfield, who was in New York the day terrorists turned the twin towers of the World Trade Center into rubble, said he left the panel discussion with new insights. Attending the symposium gave him a better understanding of why the attacks happened, Bonfield said. “I was trying to understand the motivations and now I have a clearer sense. One of the common threads was that [the panelists] all touched on motivations and provided reasonable possibilities.”

Sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences, the symposium gathered Political Science Professors Brendan O’Leary, Ian Lustick, and Robert Vitalis, History Professor Arthur Waldron, and Law Professor Seth Kreimer for a discussion on the recent attacks.

Vitalis, who is also director of the Middle East Center, said gatherings such as these were needed in the face of rising tensions. “It seems to me that the university forces us, obliges us, to step back from the discussions that go on as a nation—the patriotism, the revenge, the hatred, the passions. The university requires us to do that, and it tries to make it safe to do so,” he said. He urged the audience to rely on “analytic distance” as a way of coping with the devastation.

A visiting professor from the London School of Economics, O’Leary agreed that forums can help restore perspective and open dialogue. “Don’t let your normal rhythms be interrupted. Keep a sense of proportion despite the magnitude of the unfolding horrors. Don’t close universities, make them places where people talk about and argue about these questions,” he said

Yet if the panelists agreed that such gatherings were crucial, there was much debate on America’s next steps.

Military approach

“There has to be a military dimension to the solution,” insisted Waldron. “When we really know who did it and we know who they are, then we have to kill the people who are responsible. We have to root out this terrorist network root and branch,” he said.

To accomplish this task, Waldron argued that the CIA needs a “housecleaning from top to bottom.”

He said, “We no longer have people who really know the languages, know the cultures, are able to make the contacts, are able to do the work that’s necessary to figure out what’s going on.”

But Lustick said the push for more human agents misses the point. “The fact is that it is virtually impossible, as the Israelis have found, to infiltrate these groups with American or other foreign agents. It is inevitable that we have to rely on electronic surveillance techniques and other remote means.”

Lustick said the larger issue was overcoming “organizational jealousies” that exist between America’s internally and externally directed surveillance centers. He said agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency do not have a history of cooperation and teamwork.

Joining the debate on America’s military response, O’Leary cautioned that “killing civilians is wrong and that applies to both governments and terrorists, and governments are generally the biggest killers of all.”

Civil liberties

Kreimer added that in deciding a course of action Americans should recall their dedication to civil liberties. “In time of war there is a temptation to forget that dedication. When the enemy is faceless, we are tempted to see the enemy’s face in those who resemble him,” he said

The talk, which was restricted to the Penn community, was followed by a question-and-answer session. As the lines behind the four microphones continued to grow, University President Judith Rodin frequently reminded the audience of the one-minute time limit.

Connie Gager, a professor in the Sociology Department and audience member, later said she agreed with the call to learn from past mistakes. “I think there is a little too much discussion on a military response. Overall, what I most identified with is the idea of this giving us the opportunity to right the wrongs. For example, the Japanese internment camps [after World War II]—how can we turn this into something where we can stand up and say we’re not going to persecute Arab Americans,” she said.

Yet whether or not audience members agreed with the messages of the individual panelists, they came away feeling more in tune with the national crisis. Stuart Benoff, senior programmer analyst for Information Systems and Computing, said, “I came here today to hear the experts, and [what] better place to find the experts than a group of Penn professors.”

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Originally published on September 27, 2001