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A Study of Atrocity with a Dream of Peace

In his new book, Richard Dekmejian of USC College puts political violence in context

By Wayne Lewis
April 1, 2007

A Study of Atrocity with a Dream of Peace

It’s surprising, but one of the world’s leading experts on the topic of terrorism doesn’t like the word.

“It’s a biased term,” said Richard Dekmejian, a scholar who has served as a consultant for the State Department, the Defense Department and the United Nations. “It frames everything from the perspective of the nation-state, which has become the bastion of legitimacy. But in terms of human beings killed, traditional terrorism pales when compared to genocide. States have such a monopoly on the means for violence that the state can be the supreme terrorist.”

The political science professor just published a new book, Spectrum of Terror (CQ Press, 2007), based on one of his undergraduate courses and what he has learned while teaching it for the last two decades. He argues that acts of political violence, from the proverbial lone gunman to organized pogroms against religious and ethnic minorities, exist on the same continuum. Thus, the Unabomber, Al-Qaeda and the Third Reich are linked in violence, even as they differ in context and scale.

Dekmejian has an important message: If conflicts aren’t resolved when they’re on the small end of the scale, they can escalate, sometimes even leading to massacre.

He pointed to strife between the rebel group Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government as a ready example of political violence that started smaller but has several times spawned interethnic bloodbaths claiming thousands of lives.

“The moral of the story,” he said, “is you have to deal with these things at the micro level so they won’t escalate and become politicide or genocide.”

The bulk of Spectrum of Terror reviews case studies of political violence, a wide-ranging round-up that includes the IRA, the Chechens, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda as well as the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. In addition to presenting narratives and timelines, Dekmejian’s analysis examines strategy in cultural context by integrating game theory, a branch of mathematics studying the interaction of parties having distinct or competing interests. And context is key.

“People’s self-interests are very often clouded by their cultural background,” Dekmejian said. “An Islamic suicide bomber calculates his self-interest very differently than you or I do. His concerns are leaving behind a hero’s legacy, his destination in the afterlife and his perception of what it means to be a good Muslim. Unless you understand that, you’re nowhere in trying to stop him or trying to reform the situation so that this type of person would not emerge.”

In the book’s final section, Dekmejian offers predictions of future trends in political violence and his recommendations for a more peaceful world.

For Dekmejian, a U.S. Army veteran, the ideal situation would see enlightened leaders worldwide forming a coalition to intervene in genocides and, equally important, to bring together factions in conflict to resolve issues before they reach that level.

He pointed to the U.S. role in negotiating a truce between the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the U.K. government as a case of pressure and inducements from a third party working to end a longtime ethnic and religious feud.

“One has to be hopeful about these things, whether it’s the Arab-Israeli conflict or even the Iraq situation.”

Careful examination of political violence’s history in context, he said, is essential to the process of resolving such conflicts.

“We need to find out what the deep causes were — psychological, social, political — look at the evolution of conflict in game theoretic terms and then look at whether the thing can be resolved. If a situation has been resolved, we need to look at how and learn that lesson.”

For now, though, Dekmejian said he doesn’t see easy solutions to America’s own entanglements in the Middle East, noting that “violent jihadism is going to be with us for a long time.”

Spectrum of Terror is essentially an adaptation of a popular course Dekmejian teaches each fall, “Terrorism and Genocide.” His students receive a salute on the dedication page, and he credited the undergraduates and teaching assistants from this course — numbering around 4,000 through his 20 years at USC College — with providing feedback vital to the book’s development.

“In a sense, it’s multi-authored,” he said. “I’ve learned a great deal from personal contact with my students. You think you know something, and all of a sudden a student throws a question at you that pushes you to reexamine your whole stance — sometimes your facts as well.”

He allowed that his chosen subject matter is indeed grim but serves a greater cause.

“I prefer teaching my leadership course over the class on terrorism and genocide. It’s more uplifting,” he said. “But I teach this course out of a sense of duty, precisely because it deals with such a tragic topic. My overwhelming interest in the topic of political violence is how to prevent it.”