An increasing number of U.S. colleges and universities offer courses about terrorism, everything from analyzing the terrorist mindset, operations, and funding to what the United States and other countries can do to protect themselves from attack. VOA's Andrew Baroch recently sat in on a terrorist studies course at American University in Washington, D.C.
About thirty students, mostly undergraduates took their seats for the once-a-week, 90-minute course formally titled "Homeland Security: Strategy and Policy."
Student1: "I enrolled mostly because Homeland security is brand new. In my lifetime, I've watched the Berlin Wall fall and international politics change completely. This is something that's going to be interesting to watch."
Student2: "It's a very relevant topic that not a lot of people know about or understand."
Student3: "The more we learn about it, the more we understand about it, the better off we're all going to be."
Student4: "People want to know the threats of the 21st century, they want to know the intellectual and ideological sources of terrorism that confront the West. I guess that's why these classes are popular."
Student5: "It would be almost foolish to pass up a course this important, this in depth."
Student6: "By studying, we hope to make it not a deadly scenario but an optimistic scenario."
The professor entered the classroom and introduced himself: Professor Kamal Beyoghlow, a native of Lebanon, has been teaching national security studies in the United States for more than 25 years. He talked a little about his goal for this class.
"I want to foster critical thinking about homeland security and terrorism issues," he says. "This is really why I'm here. I'm here to get you to think systematically and rigorously about the issues that are really important to your lives and to the wellbeing of our country. There are a lot of things to be discussed in this classroom."
Professor Beyoghlow's first topic: potential terrorist targets in the nation's infrastructure - the power grid, transportation network as well as the food and water supply. He had his students thinking concretely about the terrorist threat and had even larger plans for the rest of the semester.
"I'm going to teach them about terrorism groups, threat, character. I'm going to talk to them about the dynamics of homeland security and why it's important to the United States," he says. "It may not be as important overseas. We want to delve into controversial issues. What is the best definition of terrorism so they can better understand, in essence, where the country is going so they can become better citizens ands judge for themselves the types of policies that government is making. This is the next generation. These are the kids who are going to take over one of these days and they're going to carry the country forward and they're going to have to make the best choices. The only choice they have now is by learning about it and by being very careful in the way they make those decisions."
Professor Kamal Beyoghlow's class, begun just a week ago at American University, is one of many new courses of its kind introduced at the nation's colleges and universities in the last three years.
Universities have received about $70 million in federal funding to start up the programs.
The curriculum varies. Some universities may offer just one course; say on the history of terrorism. Others allow students to pursue undergraduate, graduate, and even doctoral degrees in the field. It's an approach generally known as interdisciplinary studies: incorporating, for example, the biology of terrorism to explore the planning of a bacteriological attack; philosophy, to see if there's a coherent worldview behind what seem like random acts of savagery; history, religion, political science, emergency preparedness.
And they offer students a variety of perspectives on the subject.
A university, by definition, raises all sorts of viewpoints, so professors need to be impartial and objective. In his classes at Virginia's University of Richmond, Professor Kevin Kuzwa teaches some of the philosophy of Usama Bin Laden.
"Trying to understand where they are tracing their political beliefs in the Koran," says Mr. Kuzwa. "We'll actually read some of the passages in the Koran. We'll deliberate whether the particular passages are violent, encourage violence. If so, is there a way to interpret them so that they might not be talking about actual violence, but faith, strong faith?"
Many of the universities have long waiting lists of students hoping to get into classes already filled. Some of the students I talked with at American University said the course may be the first step to a career helping protect the security of the United States.
But there are other reasons for the courses' popularity, According to Steven David, a professor of national security at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
"There's no substitute to see in those attacks on American soil, killing of thousands of Americans. Nothing like that happened during the cold War," he notes. "And the continuing onslaught of terrorism has created a sense of personal fear that I think is far greater than anything people of my generation experienced during the Cold War. And that's a major impetus for students seeking to understand this problem more fully. Students who do take the class, some of them, come out of it shaken. And upset. We talk about some of the potentialities of terror combined with weapons of mass destruction, the use of dirty bombs, God forbid, the use of nuclear weapons. And how this is not an improbable event with catastrophic consequences. For some of the students, It's difficult to take."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, DC, which employs nearly 200,000 people, is openly recruiting graduates of terrorist studies programs all across the country.