Terrorism is a hard word to define. Even experts on the subject find it difficult.
“I study terrorism, but I often struggle to understand what terrorism exactly is,” said James Piazza, a professor of political science at Penn State who specializes in the study of terrorism and political violence.
Speaking from behind a clutter-free desk, he described terrorism as “the instrumental use of violence to garner attention, to scare people … a politically motivated violent act, the objective of which is to influence a larger audience as opposed to secure a victory in the battlefield.”
“Any political actor conceivably could engage in terrorism,” he added.
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“How would terrorism differ from a hate crime … or from rebel group civil war insurgency, or from conventional war?” he asked. He is unclear as to whether it “necessarily has to target only civilians, or can you conduct a terrorist attack on military targets?”
But he does think that a consensus exists in the field that “an act of random violence without a political motive, perpetrated by a troubled person, is not terrorism.”
Every year or two, Piazza consults with Washington-based organizations such as the National Counterterrorism Center.
“Oftentimes their mission is to get the bad guy,” he said. “That’s not my mission. My mission it to understand why it happens.”
It’s for that reason that Piazza is helping to build an online homeland security master’s degree program. He wants to use the program as “a conduit for what we know as academics to try to help people in those professions use (the information) as best as possible.”
Piazza came to Penn State in 2010 after teaching at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for seven years and at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., for four years.
He was a student majoring in political science during the Gulf War in 1991, and that changed what he wanted to study. He got his master’s degree from the University of Michigan in Middle Eastern studies and his doctorate in politics from New York University.
After 9/11, policymakers were looking for an effective way to fight terrorism, he said, and “making a lot of statements like if we tackle poverty, or if we handle issues of poor education, poor opportunity, that will reduce terrorist activity. I thought that was pretty plausible.”
His first study — precisely about poverty and terrorism — did not find results consistent with that train of thought. “That was my gateway into this. I just started doing more and more of this stuff until it became my overall agenda.”
“The contemporary terrorist threat that Americans think about the most, or worry about the most, is from religiously motivated terrorists,” Piazza said. “It tends to be coming from parts of the world where Islam is the major religion, but that’s something that’s really a feature of contemporary terrorism that we are facing after 9/11.”
The most relevant threats to Americans, according to Piazza, are from al-Qaida and the Islamic State, “movements that are motivated from interpretation of religion.”
But Piazza makes the point that “if you look at terrorist activity in the Middle East, a lot of it is secular terrorism — people that may come from a Muslim background and may be in a Muslim country but are not talking about Islam when they are committing terrorist attacks.”
This, he finds, is one of the biggest misconceptions with the current terrorist threats the public faces.
Douglas Lemke, a colleague in the political science department, said Piazza has “a tremendous work ethic, so that once he’s got a question in his mind a paper is soon to be produced and published.”
“He’s a really nice guy given the awful things he studies,” said Joseph Young, a collaborator with Piazza and an associate professor at American University.
Renato Buanafina is a Penn State journalism student.