Q&A: Terrorism Expert Jessica Stern on Her Own Terror and Trauma

  • Share
  • Read Later
Photo by Joel Benjamin

It’s really about working in danger. The capacity to remain calm when under threat and to also be able to be quite aware of one’s environment. If you think about what it takes to stay alive for a soldier — they call it PTSD when the soldier retires — but if he didn’t have hypervigilance and dissociation while on the battlefield, he’s a danger to himself and everybody else. Those are exactly the qualities we need them to have. If you are a military commander, you would be upset by soldiers who didn’t have those qualities.

At home, however, being focused on avoiding threat and “tuning out” can cause problems.

Yes, in another environment they can be maladaptive. I realize that being hypervigilant is not a good quality in a mom and not a good quality in any close relationship that isn’t on the battlefield. It’s not attractive in normal human relationships, but is completely adaptive in very dangerous situations.

How does it cause problems in relationships?

I can overreact to things. What I have to look out for is being overprotective of my son. That’s really hard to get right. [And] certain things will trigger me, certain topics of conversation. Sexual violence can come up and I’ll react oddly. I can become judgmental when I’m actually feeling scared.

You’ve talked about posttraumatic growth, not just posttraumatic mental illness.

I think it’s possible to experience posttraumatic growth and decline both at same time. I think I have both. Posttraumatic decline is a term I just made up! It’s possible to have growth as well as to remain plagued by certain symptoms. And growth includes an awareness of the fragility of life.

For those who have been truly terrorized, mortality has more meaning and I think that life therefore can have more meaning. For myself, it’s given me more empathy, in some cases almost too much. I feel other people’s feelings too much and that could be a form of hypervigilance. If an extreme form of empathy is a form of hypervigilance, it’s both good and bad, both growth and decline.

When you interviewed terrorists, did you have to empathize with them?

I think that people often confuse sympathy with empathy. I think there’s a big difference. I think that the reason they talked to me is because I was able to really be with their feelings, without judging them at least for as long as I was in the room with them. It doesn’t mean I condone their actions, but when they tell me about why they do what they do I can just listen.

So what role do you think being traumatized plays in terrorism?

I don’t really know but I’m putting out a hypothesis, which I hope that other people will be able to test because I can’t. One thing I’ve known about but was in denial about myself was the sexual abuse of boys at madrassahs. [It’s so routine in Afghanistan that] Thursday night is considered “man loving” night [because everything is believed to be forgiven when people go to the Mosque on Friday]. I have to ask myself, “Why did it take me so long to recognize that this could be important?”

I’m not saying that this is the cause of terrorism. My main finding in regard to terrorism is based on what terrorists themselves say. They talk about humiliation, mostly in political terms, the humiliation of Islamic civilization. It wasn’t until I wrote this book that I thought, “What if kids who have been abused are more susceptible to the [political] argument about humiliation?”

What was the most frightening experience you had when you were interviewing terrorists?

The most terrifying was when I talked to this guy Fazlur Rahman Khalil. He was the head of Harkat Ul Mujahadeen. The guy convicted of killing Daniel Pearl was a member of an offshoot of this organization. This is why Daniel Pearl’s murder was so incredibly traumatic for me [even though] I never met him.

That was a scary situation and I did bizarrely find myself feeling afraid that he was going to poison me. It was an absurd thought. I was [drinking tea with him]. They’re loaded down with guns, so it’s weird that I would think that. I was in Islamabad. This was before September 11. The only time I was really terrified was when I was drinking that tea — I should have felt [scared the whole time] but I didn’t. In retrospect, I can’t believe I did it [at all]. They had kidnapped foreigners already. They had killed some Western hikers.

What do you think motivated the man who raped you?

I do think that he was abused. I can’t prove it, but I think he was abused by a priest. Did that make him who he was? No. If you look at perpetrators, most are victims — but most victims are not perpetrators. It’s not an excuse but it is a partial explanation.

More Mind Reading on TIME.com:

Oliver Sacks on The Mind’s Eye

Christopher Ryan on Sex at Dawn

Heather Sellers on Living with Face Blindness

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next