ICAR Professor’s Book Explores Terrorism from a Personal Perspective

Posted: November 20, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Laura S. Jeffrey

As a cultural anthropologist and the survivor of a terrorist attack that took the life of her husband, Susan Hirsch offers a personal perspective on violence, justice and retribution.

Associate professor and undergraduate program director at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Hirsch has written a book, “In the Moment of Greatest Calamity: Terrorism, Grief, and a Victim’s Quest for Justice” (Princeton University Press). It will be the focus of a panel discussion on Nov. 30, hosted by ICAR on the Arlington Campus.

Hirsch was in Africa on a Fulbright fellowship in August 1998, teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and conducting research on Islam, gender relations and the legal systems of East Africa. She had spent the past year on that continent and was a week shy of returning to her teaching position at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Her Kenyan husband, Abdurahman Mohamed “Jamal” Abdalla, would be coming to the United States for the first time.

But on Aug. 7, Hirsch and her husband went to the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam. Abdalla waited outside while Hirsch went inside to cash a check. While she was conducting her transaction, a truck bomb exploded outside the embassy. Hirsch escaped with minor injuries, but her husband was killed.

Almost simultaneously, another truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The two terrorist attacks killed more than 200 people, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands more. The attacks were almost immediately linked to the then largely unknown Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist organization. Eventually, four men were convicted and sentenced to life without parole for their roles in the attacks.

Susan Hirsch
Susan Hirsch
Photo by Evan Cantwell

But the attacks did not resonate with most Americans. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda would not become part of the American lexicon until Sept. 11, 2001, two months after the seven-month-long trials for the embassy bombing suspects concluded in New York City.

“When something like that [the embassy bombing] happens to an individual, it becomes your whole life for quite awhile,” Hirsch said recently. “And it’s astounding that it’s not on everybody else’s agenda. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about those attacks or others that happened,” such as the bombing of the USS Cole, also linked to al-Qaeda, she said.

“These ended up being thought of as isolated incidents. We know now there were people in the government who were trying to follow those and who were collecting information about al-Qaeda. But we didn’t hear much of that as a nation. And so, there was a sense that the embassy bombings really didn’t get the attention that especially a victim might have wanted.”

In her book, Hirsch describes her grief at her husband’s death, and how she incorporated the myriad facets of her life – her Jewish background, her husband’s Swahili traditions, her American family and friends, her intellectual and scholarly explorations of law and justice – in an attempt to find comfort and understanding. She also explores her perspectives as both victim and anthropologist while attending the bombing suspects’ trials.

“Victim” is a term that Hirsch does not shy away from. “For me, using it started when I realized how powerful the legal definition is,” she said. “As a victim, I have a right to be at the trial. I have a right to information. I have a right to be part of holding someone accountable. I take that label seriously.

“As a victim, I then felt an obligation to lobby my government to do this in the right way,” she added. “Trials are the promise of retributive justice, not revenge.”

Hirsch has become active in a group called Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. She wants to help people who are “struggling to achieve some sort of response after the murder of a loved one, whether it’s a trial or something else,” she said. Hirsch also said she feels committed to speaking out against the death penalty, to “hold back from something that looks like revenge.”

Hirsch wrote her book through a research fellowship with the National Humanities Center. She joined the Mason faculty in 2004. “It was time for me to make a move,” she said. “And I saw the opportunity here to build an undergraduate program and to have graduate students, and I welcomed the interdisciplinary atmosphere of ICAR.

“ICAR has become an important place to start this next phase,” she added, “for my colleagues and me to talk about how we take this knowledge that we’re developing about things like terrorism and justice, and how we use it to reach a broader audience.

“So for me, it’s a great setting to do the next step after going through what I went through,” she said. “Maybe it will result in an impact in some way.”

“Who Needs Justice,” a panel discussion of Hirsch’s book, will take place at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 30, in the Atrium of the George Mason University Law School, Arlington Campus. Scheduled to appear are Howard Gadlin, ombudsman and director for the Center for Cooperative Resolution at the National Institutes of Health, and Joseph Margulies, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center and associate clinical professor at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago. The event is free. For more information, e-mail eogilvie@gmu.edu or call 703-993-1300.

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