Listening To The Enemy

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It takes a special kind of courage to think about the unthinkable, and Jessica Stern has it. A lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School, Stern studies those who kill innocents for political gain. While others debate theories of terrorism from the safety of the ivory tower, Stern travels the world to meet those who actually commit the acts.

She began her career as a chemist, but a stint working in Russia started her thinking about the world outside the lab. "You couldn't live in Moscow without being very aware of what felt like the danger of war," she recalls. She switched her focus to chemical weapons, and she went on to a position with the National Security Council, where, using her fluent Russian, she tracked nuclear smugglers.

Stern was among the first to realize that in a world in which holy war can be waged with suitcase nukes, the conventional wisdom about terrorists--that they stick to attacks with high profiles but low casualties--was dangerously misguided. "It is increasingly clear," she wrote in her 1999 book, The Ultimate Terrorists, "that not all terrorists feel that way." In the book, which begins with a scenario in which the Empire State Building is destroyed by a homemade nuclear bomb, she coined the term macro-terrorism to describe terrorist acts that result in mass casualties. On Sept. 11 macroterrorism became a reality.

Stern believes the answer to our current crisis will come from talking to the perpetrators themselves, and she combs prisons and refugee camps for terrorists to see what drives them. "It's vital that somebody be listening," she says. "It's not just a question of solving political conflicts. It's also about extreme humiliation and deprivation. We can't resolve the issue without taking those factors into account."