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Putting Theory Into Practice

Those once-obscure terrorism experts are now trying to answer the tough questions--as the world watches.

November 18, 2001|NINA J. EASTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Bogota or Belfast; Kashmir, Pakistan or Colombo, Sri Lanka. No matter what far-flung terrorist hotspot Bruce Hoffman visited, he consoled himself with the thought that soon he'd return to the safety of the U.S. Sure, international terrorism on U.S. soil was a theoretical possibility--actually a probability, according to a vocal faction of terrorism scholars, Hoffman included. But talking theory and confronting reality are rarely twin experiences.

For Hoffman, reality on Sept. 11 was a hijacked jetliner slamming into the Pentagon just 400 yards away from his office, four floors full of panicked Rand Corp. employees, and a decision to be made: Was it more dangerous to stay inside, where windows threatened to shatter from the jet fuel explosion, or to evacuate?

Intimately familiar with a terrorist history of diversionary bombs--in which evacuees were "cut down by masonry and flying shards of glass" in subsequent explosions--he resisted evacuation until the building management forced everyone out. "I thought that as long as the building's not under attack, going out in the street could be much worse if there's a car bomb or truck bomb near the Pentagon," explains Hoffman, director of Rand's Washington office. "Letting people out could be exactly the wrong move."

Hoffman, a fast-talking native of the Bronx and former devotee of the L.A. sun, is part of a tiny world of terrorism scholars suddenly in demand to solve the riddle, and parse the implications, of America's most infamous day--one that not even these experts accurately predicted. His office is a testament to his 20-year devotion: On one wall is an autographed photo of a female Palestinian hijacker. On another is a newspaper headline from a 1990 European terrorism conference in which a last-minute security sweep uncovered a bomb. "It was an interesting comment on terrorist experts," Hoffman recalls. "All of us thought it was a hoax. We went off to a bar, and read about it the next day."

For years, these scholars have stubbornly plied their trade--writing obscure papers for obscure journals, splitting theoretical hairs at conferences in hotel ballrooms, testifying before Congress and advising government agencies--as the field went in and out of academic fashion. Now their names and faces are fast becoming familiar staples in the new coverage of America's war on terrorism.

Martha Crenshaw, government professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, is so swamped with media calls that she now uses her answering machine to screen reporters. ("Please don't call me a terrorism expert," she pleads in her soft Alabama accent. "Haven't you seen all those people on TV claiming to be that?") There is also renewed book-buying interest in their work: Hoffman's book on terrorism has sold out, and a third printing of the paperback edition is in the underway.

Suddenly, their theories are being tested in a real war between their country and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. Like any academic field, this one brims with esoteric debates and disagreements. But now these once obscure questions seem terribly relevant to the nation and its future security: Are terrorists psychopathic fanatics or rational actors with precise political objectives? Do terrorists want attention more than dead bodies? And the big question: How willing and able are terrorist-enemies to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction against the American public?

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In academia, the field of terrorism scholarship was always blue-collar grade, far less glamorous than the grand theorizing that went along with the study of, say, U.S.-Soviet relations and nuclear strategy in the 1970s and '80s. In the 1990s, terrorism studies, drawing heavily on military and intelligence history, was out of political sync, as campuses moved toward being "postmodern" and "deconstructionist." Liberal writers attacked terrorism scholars for being shills of an American military policy that propped up right-wing terror squads while attacking leftist militants. (One person's "terrorist" is another's "freedom fighter"; academic conferences on the subject have been known to stall as impassioned scholars debate the definition of terrorism.)

Government funding, which supported the research of think tanks such as the Santa Monica-based Rand, has been equally capricious. "If you looked at the level of support over 30 years, it would look like the electrocardiogram of a healthy man--spikes followed by flat lines," said Brian M. Jenkins, the first director of Rand's three-decade-long investigation into terrorism, now a consultant. "There would be sudden, overwhelming focus, followed by being virtually ignored."

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