Terrorism as a Teaching Opportunity

How and why terrorism endures as a political tool

The past and the present sometimes meet in strange places. They intersect in a particularly intriguing way in the person of Cory Browning, fresh from a doctoral program at Cornell University and starting his first tenure-track position at the UO as an assistant professor of French.

Browning’s subspecialty is terrorism studies, and this is where his scholarship makes fascinating links between now and then. He weaves together the blood-stained guillotines of revolutionary France and the aerial destruction of 9/11, looking for ways to understand how and why terror has endured as a political tool.

Not surprisingly, Browning’s work is a sure-fire conversation starter.

“It does spark a lot of interest, because it can go in many directions,” he said. “Once you start digging, you see there is a rich history that we can explore that hasn’t been explored a lot, and I think that’s why terrorism studies is popular right now.”

It’s not really unusual that a French professor would develop expertise in terrorism, given that the word stems from the French terrorisme and refers directly to the Reign of Terror, which began in 1793 in the wake of the French Revolution. The symbol of the Terror was the guillotine, which was used to execute thousands of “enemies of the revolution,” often with little or no credible evidence.

But fear of the guillotine helped establish the revolution as the new national order; it was so successful that terrorism came to be seen by later revolutionaries as a necessary step to secure the gains of a popular uprising. That idea has persisted into modern times and is now used by Islamic extremists, among others, as a tool for gaining political power.

Americans sometimes forget their own history with terrorism, which was used to great effect by the Ku Klux Klan and more recently, with less success, by ecoterrorists. People’s views on terrorism also are shaped by their own national history and which side they see as being in the right, Browning said, citing the French resistance fighters in World War II.

During the war, both the French government and the Nazis considered resistance fighters terrorists. Even members of the resistance considered themselves terrorists, Browning said, but after the war they were regarded as heroes by the Allies for opposing the invading Germans.

It’s that duality that makes terrorism studies such an interesting field, he said. It challenges students to understand how different the world can appear depending on one’s point of view.

“Terrorism studies is actually a great teaching opportunity to engage students in that debate or to see it from different angles,” Browning said. “They see how a terrorist from one person’s perspective is a freedom fighter from another person’s perspective and see how terrorism is much more complicated and much more multifaceted than we perhaps allow it to appear in public discourse.”

But don’t mistake Browning’s intellectual pursuit for support of terrorists. He said it’s important to understand terrorism as a political weapon, not only to see how it can take root and grow but also to deal with it more effectively.

That’s why Browning disagrees with the idea that nations should never negotiate with terrorists. The complex nature of conflict and its relation to the past requires a dialogue—but not capitulation—if any solution short of war is to be found, Browning believes.

“It’s fundamentally not as black and white as politicians and others often try to make it out to be,” he said. 

—Greg Bolt