Q&A: Wingate professor reflects on causes of terrorism

by Tiffany Jothen

Political science professor Joseph Ellis wrote a quiz last Friday, referring to Osama bin Laden in the present tense, for his class called “Causes of Terrorism.” Sunday, the world heard news of bin Laden’s death.

Wingate University sophomore Mason Cook said the terrorist’s death “wouldn’t have meant as much to me” without Ellis’ class.

Cook and his classmate, freshman Benjamin Harrison, were 10 and 9 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. Cook, who lived in Maryland, remembers teachers shuffling students into the basement. Harrison’s mom woke him up shortly before he saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

Until this semester, neither learned much about terrorism.

Harrison plans to pursue psychology and was thrilled to find a chapter in his textbook dedicated to the field.

“I have a better understanding of how a terrorist’s mind works,” he said.

Harrison learned that many endured poor family lives, but he was shocked to know that some — like bin Laden — came from affluent backgrounds.

The class examined the history of terrorism, beginning with the French Revolution. Students studied groups across the globe, including American, Italian and Russian terrorists.

“What they do is monstrous, but there’s a human face behind it,” Cook said.

Ellis took on the class after a student survey revealed that many were curious about terrorism. Cook “had no idea” that so many events led up to Sept. 11.

“I thought it was just two planes hitting the two towers,” he said.

In class, Cook learned that from 1988 to 2001, between 20,000 and 30,000 people passed through bin Laden’s terrorist training camps.

“We probably can’t eradicate this group just by talking to them,” he said.

Cook has several friends in the military. Harrison’s best friend serves in Afghanistan. Both were relieved to hear of bin Laden’s death.

Q: Students spent several weeks in the class on terrorism learning about bin Laden. What are a few major points gleaned from that class discussion that will be most relevant to America as the country moves forward in the war on terror?

A: “There are two things to take note of. First, that terrorism isn’t brand new; it has been around a long time, and terrorist groups will continue to crop up for reasons that are either political, economic, religious or ideological. Second, all terrorist groups end up with some successes, but a lot of failure, and they have a hard time keeping terrorist activity going over a long period of time.”

Q: Here in Union County, hours away from political hotspots like Washington, D.C., and New York, some might feel far removed from this past week’s historical event. How does bin Laden’s death and ensuing actions worldwide directly impact local residents?

A: “There are two military bases within two hours of Monroe. It certainly impacts the military’s War on Terror and the family of those in the military. Though bin Laden’s death in the long term certainly weakens, if not cripples, al Qaeda, in the short term there will be reprisals, and this is an anxious time for a lot of folks in uniform.”

Q: Some Americans fear retaliation. Is there reason to be fearful? Could Union County be a springboard for would-be attackers during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, or is that an unlikely turn of events?

A: “You can’t live your life in fear. Should we be aware of our surroundings and concerned for our safety? Sure. But there is no clear-cut pattern that would indicate to me Union County is any less safe than Anson County, or wherever.”

Q: Based on past military and political actions by the United States, what do you predict will be the nation’s next move?

A: “Not sure. Obama has made Afghanistan the focal point of his foreign policy strategy, so I imagine his goals will be to improve that country and withdraw troops as planned. But there is no sure thing when it comes to foreign policy. There are way too many unknowns and contingencies that cause presidents to behave differently than their preconceived plans.”

Q: With campaigns starting up again, how could bin Laden’s killing impact the next presidential election?

A: “It certainly helps Obama’s case, but the economy will have to continue to improve, and he will have to withstand the criticisms of his health care policy and spending habits. I imagine the Republicans will try and run someone with strong fiscal credentials and will downplay Afghanistan and bin Laden’s death.”