Why does terrorism fascinate me? Because of the terror in my past.

By Jessica Stern
Sunday, June 20, 2010

For the past 20 years, I have studied the causes of evil and violence. Until recently, I never questioned why I was drawn to this work or why I was able to do it. Now I finally have an answer to the questions: How could a "girl" like you visit terrorist training camps in Pakistan? Weren't you afraid?

I wasn't aware that I was afraid. After a series of traumas, one can lose the capacity to feel fear appropriately.

On Oct. 1, 1973, my sister and I biked home from ballet class. We were doing our homework in our living room in Concord, Mass., when a man entered the house. For an hour, this rapist had a gun trained on my sister and me while he attacked us. She was 14, and I was a year older.

Both my sister and I went on to lead relatively happy and productive lives. My sister is a successful marketing executive, an opera singer and an actress. She is married and has two children. She feels great joy in her family and in her music, and no one would describe her as a victim. I similarly take enormous pleasure from my family and my work.

And yet, from adolescence on, I noticed changes that grew worse over time. With each passing year, I seemed to feel less and less -- less pain, but also less joy. As a child, I wanted to be a writer, but bad grades in classes that required writing persuaded me to give up. I was more comfortable studying unemotional subjects. I majored in chemistry, in part because it came more easily to me, and in part because I liked that the answers were either right or wrong, unlike in real life, where emotional valences count.

I was planning to become a chemist, but then I got seduced by curiosity about violence. I was both repulsed and fascinated. I skipped the war parts in "War and Peace" but wrote a doctoral dissertation on chemical weapons that focused mainly on the mechanics of violence, with little attention to the human toll.

Ultimately, I became an expert on terrorism. I wrote my first article on the prospects for terrorists to attack chemical plants or use toxic chemicals in 1983. At the time, working on this issue wasn't a wise career move. Very few people took the threat seriously. Still, I believed that terrorism would become increasingly important, and I continued to focus on it. I started out doing technical work related to weapons, but eventually I gave in to an intense curiosity about terrorists themselves. In that work I made use of a personality quirk, rather than my academic training. I am fascinated by the secret motivations of violent men, and I'm good at ferreting them out.

When I'm in a frightening situation, I can go into a kind of altered state. I do not feel afraid. I do not get angry. I am interested, a spy.

For my most recent book on terrorism, I traveled throughout the Middle East and Asia, including a trip to Muridke, in Pakistan's Punjab province, where I met with Lashkar-i-Taiba operatives and the leader of the group, recently implicated in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. I once went to the home of Masood Azhar, leader of the extremist group Harkat ul-Mujaheddin and a friend of Osama bin Laden.

I was able to silence judgment as I listened, to stop myself from feeling horror. If I allowed myself to feel only curiosity and empathy -- not to be confused with sympathy -- the terrorists would want to talk to me.

Nonetheless, fear does find me. The buzzing of fluorescent lights or the click of a turn signal in a car can set my teeth on edge. The sound of fireworks makes me want to pull the covers up over my head. I do not like to be in crowds, especially at night, when there might be a frisson of sexuality in the air.

But in truly frightening situations, I retain my composure.

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