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Last Word

Working Toward Peace

- By P. Aarne Vesilind

The events of September 11 prove that engineers' responsibilities to society must now include the protection of the public from terrorism. The engineering community has responded with vigor and enthusiasm to this challenge, as evidenced by the February issue of Prism. Several feature articles describe the determination and skill of engineers in infrastructure security, defensive biotechnology, and identification of criminals. The article “25 Ways to Fight Terrorism” illustrates how sophisticated technology can be applied to fighting terrorism, and the Last Word, “Combating Terrorism Through Engineering,” encourages engineers to use this technology. I agree with this call to arms and fully support the efforts of engineers in preventing harm to our citizens.

But in the end, I have to conclude that people with malicious intent can always find ways around these technical barriers. If we depend only on technology to fight terrorism, then we will eventually lose. The terrorist will always figure out ways to outsmart the latest technology and even use our own technology against us.

In addition to developing defensive weapons then, what else can engineers do in the fight against terrorism? First, we need to reconsider the problem and remember that often the best solution to a problem lies upstream. “Pollution prevention” is what we call it in environmental engineering. Solve the problem by eliminating it. And in the case of terrorism, the problem is not how to develop better technology (the end-of-pipe solution), but rather how to prevent terrorist acts from occurring.

Let's begin by asking who these terrorists are. What is so important to them that they are willing to die in furthering their cause? It seems to me that terrorism can occur when the perpetrators:

* Demonize an identifiable group who they believe is not deserving of moral consideration.
* Believe that they are on the moral high ground or that their religious beliefs allow them to commit such actions.
* Believe that they are acting for some greater good.

Osama bin Laden's attacks on the World Trade Center clearly fulfill these criteria. He and his followers have demonized the American people and American culture. They believe they are morally right and that their religion (even though they misinterpret it) encourages them to commit these acts. And finally, they believe they are doing this for the greater good.

If we take the proper engineering approach to fighting back, we first have to determine what their rationale is for attacking us. How could they demonize America and Americans? We are (in our opinion, anyway) the good guys. The answer is in our historic attitude toward the Islamic world. Most of us have such a limited understanding of Islamic culture that we are able to think of them as “the other.” And some of our actions may have convinced the Islamic world that we are evil. A better understanding of those views, generous assistance to those less fortunate than us, and the education of our children to appreciate other cultures will eventually lead to a greater understanding of each other's societies and a reduced threat of terrorism.

Second, we have to have a rational and reasoned response to those who label themselves as fundamentalists but in fact misinterpret and distort a religious dogma to meet their own political or social agendas. In this country, we have tolerated the zealots among us warily, but threatening and harming others or limiting their freedoms under the cloak of religious doctrine is unacceptable, and we should say so boldly and publicly. Overseas, we should cease to be hypocrites and stop supporting states that discriminate on the basis of religion or ethnicity. Warped fundamentalism leads to intolerance, and intolerance gives way to hatred.

Finally, we have to recognize the rights and aspirations of all people. Do the Basques have a case for establishing an independent homeland? Do the Kurds deserve to live in peace without being decimated by Sadaam Hussein? And do the Palestinians have some legitimate gripes against Israel?

Understanding the aspirations of all people and working with them to achieve lasting peace is not easy, and this approach to combating terrorism is not a quick fix. It is far easier to just bomb them (we don't know exactly who) into the Stone Age. But killing some of them will not prevent acts of terrorism. We have to ask why people hold such strong beliefs that they are willing to die for their cause, and then we must do what we can to resolve our differences. These people may actually have valid concerns, and we would be a far better nation if we at least listened to them.

As engineering educators, we should rightfully applaud the technological advances that help us protect the public from terrorism, but we should also make sure our students understand that the final solution is not in technology but in greater understanding and justice among all people. Only this approach will work in the long run, and the sooner we adopt this strategy, the safer we will be.

P. Aarne Vesilind is the R. L. Rooke Professor of Engineering in the Historical and Societal Context at Bucknell University. He can be reached by e-mail at