Arts / Faith and Humanities / People of SU / Society / Justice and Law

Deconstructing Terror

Written by Mike Thee

August 12, 2013

a red painted steel sculpture by Calder - a Seattle icon on the waterfront on a grey day

SU alumnus contributes significantly to the study of terrorism.

Christopher Harmon, '77, one of the nation's foremost scholars on terrorism, says SU played a pivotal role in sparking his interest in the field. It was while he was studying abroad, as part of the French in France program led by Associate Professor Paul Milan, that Harmon first became intrigued by the phenomenon. As several European countries grappled with terrorism, Harmon had a front-row seat.

He returned to Seattle last month to give a talk to the Boeing Management Association and spent some time visiting his alma mater. Over the course of an hour-long interview, Harmon reminisced about his time at SU and discussed terrorism, the field to which he has devoted three decades of academic work.

After graduating summa cum laude from SU with a double major in history and French language, Harmon earned an M.A. in government and Ph.D. in international relations and government, both from Claremont Graduate School. His research on terrorism could not have come at a more opportune time. He joined the staff of U.S. Rep. Jim Courter (R-NJ) in 1985. "Terrorist attacks became a big issue on Capitol Hill right around the time I arrived," says Harmon, mentioning as one example the June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. He shared his expertise widely, writing policy reviews that appeared in newspapers including The Christian Science Monitor.

After his time in D.C., Harmon returned to academia, taking on a number faculty posts in the United States and Germany. In 1993 he joined the Marine Corps University where he currently serves as the Major General Matthew C. Horner Distinguished Chair of Military History. Based in Quantico, Va., the university includes three graduate-level programs. Most of Harmon's students are uniformed men and women but a few are civilians who typically work in intelligence.

A prolific scholar, Harmon has worked extensively on war and terrorism, editing or writing four books. His next offering, which comes out in December is titled A Citizen's Guide to Terrorism and Counterterrorism. Harmon describes the book as short and accessible with only 155 footnotes, a staggeringly low number for him, he says with a laugh.

Highly sought after for his expertise on terrorism, Harmon has spoken before numerous groups across the country and internationally, and has testified before Congress. In 2001 he received the "Distinguished Public Service Award" from the Department of State.

Asked what he considers the most important contributions he has made to study of terrorism, Harmon lists three. He first alludes to a journal contribution he made in 1992 in which he characterized terrorism as "a special kind of immorality and a vicious form of political activity that needed attention and study." Second, he points to the argument he has consistently made that terrorism should be regarded as a strategy rather than dismissed as just a tactic. And third, while much research has been done on the causes and origins of terrorist groups, Harmon's public lectures and publications of 2003-2007 helped pioneer study of how and why such organizations end.

He elaborates on the third point by sharing a chart of terrorist groups that have ceased to exist, a project that he says was a year in the making. He points out a historical oddity-how a lawsuit against the Aryan Nations following a shooting at Hayden Lake, Idaho, effectively ended that group's operation in 2000-before turning to the more common avenues by which terrorist groups include the use of force by the military or police, decapitation (taking out the leader) or a multifaceted approach he calls a "grand strategy."

The United States has deployed a grand strategy-including force, intelligence, economic tools, diplomacy and policy-since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and, in Harmon's estimation, the approach is working. To be sure, there are areas to improve and strengthen. "We could be much better at public diplomacy," he says. "We could be reaching over other governments and talking directly to populations." He would also like to see the government be more imaginative and proactive in countering terrorism, rather than just playing defense.

Much as a balanced strategy to defeating terrorism has proven most effective, the terrorist organizations that have had the most success tend to utilize a multiplicity of approaches, Harmon says. "On balance, terrorism is disturbingly effective when it is managed well with other political strategies." A case in point is Hezbollah, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary and is led by the same man who founded it. Hezbollah has been "fantastically successful," Harmon explains, because it has pursued a number of strategies to complement its terrorist activities, including governing and influencing those who govern.

Harmon looks back fondly on his Seattle University experience, which began long before he enrolled as a student. With two parents who were veteran employees of the university-his father Bob, professor emeritus of history, and mother Gina, who worked in the Registrar's Office-his memories go way back. He remembers attending SU basketball games as a kid and running around his dad's office. He lights up when talking about the professors who influenced him most as a student in the Honors Program, including Pat Burke (philosophy), Hamida Bosmajian (literature) and Al Mann (history). Harmon came back to SU to deliver the 2006 Al Mann Lecture.

Then there's Bill Taylor, who is still on SU's faculty. As it happens both Harmon and his mother had Taylor as a professor. (Gina took the class while she was a staff member.) "(Taylor) told me, 'Your mother was a better student than you are,'" Harmon recounts, laughing. "And he was right!" Even still, Harmon says he loved Taylor's film class. "I still talk to my wife about what I learned," he says.

Now that he is on the other side of the lectern, Harmon is generous with his prodigious and ever-expanding knowledge. During the interview, he patiently indulges any and all questions that come his way. He talks about three distinct phases he has observed in the history of terrorist groups: in the 1970s, terrorism was largely deployed by leftist or Marxist groups; in the 1980s and into the '90s, American terrorist groups were among the many typically focused on race and separatist issues; and since the mid-90s, religion has entered the equation, particularly with the rise of Sunni extremism.

Although there's a perception that terrorism is ever on the rise, historical analysis proves otherwise, says Harmon. Still, the myth persists, along with several others. Such as terrorism being mindless. Or terrorism being a male-driven enterprise. Or terrorists being disenfranchised and poor. Harmon debunks each of these misperceptions, explaining that terrorism is a most often a very intentionally used instrument in service of a political agenda; that women play a significant role in terrorist organizations; and that many participants in terrorist groups are well educated, some with advanced degrees. "The people they send to do the suicide bombing may not have master's degrees," says Harmon, "but the leader often does."