The last time political science professor Fred Bergerson fired an M-16 rifle was in 1968— a lifetime ago as a soldier in Vietnam. This summer, Dr. Bergerson had the opportunity to fire the same type of weapon again while he visited another embattled region: the Middle East. This time he burst two balloons in target practice while participating in an academic program.
Along with about 40 colleagues from universities and colleges around the country, Dr. Bergerson took part in a 10-day course, "Defending Democracy, Defeating Terrorism," as part of a fellowship with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). The goal of his sojourn to Israel and the West Bank was to look at the issue of terrorism first-hand and see how democratization efforts can be used to combat terror.
While in Israel, he and the other FDD Fellows attended seminars, conducted fieldwork, and visited military bases, border zones, and other security installations to learn about the practices of deterring terrorist attacks. Program instructors and lecturers included academics, diplomats, military and intelligence officials, and politicians from Israel, India, and the United States.
"We were immersed in the topics of terrorism and democratization. We were encouraged to engage with these issues, think of big ideas, come up with new solutions, and later raise related questions with our students. Further, we were prompted to communicate with our communities and our campuses about these issues. We hope to motivate people to think about the problems and to create solutions. My faculty colleagues on the program saw many of the impacts of the interaction of terrorism and democracy, and we had lively disputes in our search for better ways of problem solving."
According to Dr. Bergerson the Foundation leaders were diligent in securing the safety of the participants as they visited potential high-profile targets, such as an Israeli Naval Operations Center — a tour the Fellows took only a day after a cease-fire was signed between Israel and Hamas. In spite of precautions taken, the group encountered a few harrowing moments. Upon entering the facility, they were warned that there might be fire before the truce went into effect. Sure enough, Dr. Bergerson recalled that right at that moment the monitoring systems of the naval station noted a rocket being fired from Gaza into southern Israel.
"[The reality is] there are no guarantees. If you are in Israel, you are in a certain amount of danger," he shrugged, a military veteran perhaps at home with some of the potential risks. "That said, it is a magnificent country, beautiful, full of energy, and full of political dissent."
Reflectively, he added, "A lot of men and women working at that naval center are about the age of most of our students."
Dr. Bergerson and his colleagues also had the rare opportunity to visit a high security prison specifically for terrorists, and while there to speak with some of the prisoners. "We went into a cell with eight prisoners and discovered what violent crimes they committed to get themselves into that prison. It was a powerful experience on many levels."
Among both the secular Palestinian terrorist prisoners and Israeli forces, he was most surprised to note optimism that a peace agreement can be achieved in the foreseeable future.
"There was a sense on the part of some of the people that we spoke to — even among those that have committed violence in the past — that they will strike a bargain someday. Not some romanticized 'day in the future,' but a realistic day not too distant from now," he said.
Dr. Bergerson's personal experience in combat intelligence and his academic expertise have influenced his teaching at Whittier College, where he teaches a course on military strategy and arms control. Returning to campus with this new experience to draw on, he hopes to stimulate and foster conversation with his students and ultimately generate creative, new strategies to tackle this global problem.
"I am going to engage as many people as I can in thoughtful consideration of the complexity of the issues of terrorism and democratization, asking students to study these problems and try to come up with ideas," said Dr. Bergerson. That is what a liberal arts college is for — to inquire and to make conjectures, to discuss and debate and dispute, and to come to tentative conclusions."
As he pursues additional understanding, Dr. Bergerson plans to keep in touch with colleagues who shared this eye-opening journey. But most of all, he proposes to stay true to the fellowship by continuing to focus both personally and professionally on this very complicated issue.
"I am interested in the idea of making democracies effective," he said."â€œI believe in opposing terrorism with a well stocked tool kit including strategies for enhancing democracy. Yet that doesn't mean that all techniques for democratization are worthwhile. It is one thing to talk about democratization in general, but it's another thing entirely to determine how it can best be achieved. You have to remember that you are dealing with other people, other countries [that have very differing views and histories and cultural influences]. If one chooses a hands-off attitude and says, 'we can't do anything about these complexities,' then that may amount to shirking one's responsibilities."
FDD is a non-partisan policy institute dedicated to "promoting pluralism, defending democratic values, and fighting the ideologies that drive terrorism" through policy, research, democracy training, strategic communications, and investigative journalism. The stated goals of FDD's academic fellowship program is to provide information to teaching professionals about the latest trends in the terrorists' ideologies, motives and operations.