A memoir of terror

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Audio Transcript:

Terrorism expert Jessica Stern was much in demand after 9/11. Her book ?Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill? was much acclaimed. Stern has now written a very different book called ?Denial: A Memoir of Terror.? It's a deeply personal account of the traumas of her childhood ? and the ways in which they've influenced her life and work. Jeb Sharp talks with Jessica Stern about her traumatic experience.

JEB SHARP: Jessica Stern is an expert on terrorism. She's traveled the world to talk to terrorists, interviewing them to try to understand what motivates their actions. That dangerous research resulted in her book, "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill". Now, Stern has written a very different book, called "Denial: A Memoir of Terror". It's a deeply personal account of the traumas of her childhood and how they've influenced her life and work. When she was 15, Jessica Stern and her sister were raped at gunpoint in a suburban Massachusetts home. More than 30 years later, Stern decided it was time to revisit that harrowing event. The crime had never been solved. Stern says her requests for the police report eventually led police to reopen the case and identify her attacker, who was no longer alive.

JESSICA STERN: I really just got very curious about what had happened to me. I had really blocked it out. It seemed to me it wasn't influencing me that I had moved on. But I got curious and when the police realized that it was a serial rapist, they reopened the case. So together with the police, we learned everything we could about the rapist.

SHARP: And what did you find out about the man who raped you?

STERN: I found out that he was very likely abused by one or more priests. He grew up in a town where there was a series of pedophile priests, one after the other after the other in his church. There were also rumors about predators at his elementary school.

SHARP: And what did you come to understand about how the terror you experienced affected you personally, and also how it shaped your interest in studying terrorists?

STERN: Well in retrospect, it seems hard to believe that I wouldn't realize that I was pursuing really cruel men, violent men and that I must have been trying to tame some terror that I wasn't even aware that I felt. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and, like many people who have PTSD, I disbelieved he diagnosis. That's true also for veterans where the connection is even more obvious.

SHARP: How has this examination of your own terror and your own trauma affected the way you think now about the study of terrorism?

STERN: It's affected it a lot. I've always seen humiliation as the most important risk factor for contemporary terrorism, especially Islamist terrorism. And I have known for many years about the routine sexual abuse of children at Pakistani madrasas. And I never really understood how that might be linked to terrorism. I had an intuition, but I never wrote about it and I barely talked about it. The process of writing this book somehow made it much more clear to me that that kind of sexual humiliation could be one form of the humiliation that I believe is a major risk factor for contemporary Islamist terrorism.

SHARP: That hunch that you have about the connection between humiliation and terrorism, can you explain that more?

STERN: Well I interviewed many terrorists and the word humiliation or a synonym came up in almost every one of my interviews. Jihadi terrorists tend to talk about civilizational humiliation. Jawahri himself says that globalization is humiliating to Islam, to Muslims, and the way for young men to overcome that humiliation is to get involved in a violent jihad. I heard about this civilizational humiliation, but I always wondered if there might be a more personal element to it. Now, having really explored the impact of sexual trauma, both on myself, but also I believe on my own rapist, it occurs to me that there may be some kind of link here. I hope that somebody will study it. I hope that somebody will have access to these kids who are sexually abused in madrasas and try to figure out what the link might possibly be.

SHARP: Will you study it?

STERN: I cannot be the one to study it.


STERN: I have now been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and I now feel fear. One could ask why would a person pay a therapist to learn to feel fear and that would be a very good question. It definitely limits what I can do professionally.

SHARP: How do you deal with the perception that these kinds of questions about the connection between humiliation and terrorism, and particularly sexual violence and terrorism in some ways offers an excuse for the violence, for the crime?

STERN: Trying to understand the underlying risk factors or motivations of terrorists is not the same as excusing their, or condoning their violence. I condemn the violence. What they do is evil. But, I believe that if we understand the risk factors, it can help us fight terrorism.

SHARP: You know Jessica, going back to your own experience of trauma, it seems to have had such an influence on your career choices. Do you ever wonder whether you would have followed a completely different path in life if you had not been raped as a teenager?

STERN: I think I would have followed an entirely different path if it hadn't happened to me, yes. I think you're right.

SHARP: Jessica Stern is the author of the new book, "Denial: A Memoir of Terror". Thanks for talking to us about it.

STERN: Thank you.