May 1st, 2010

Non-profit group shares terrorism research

When a former student pitched the idea of a non-profit organization to promote the interdisciplinary and international sharing of terrorism research, Tali K. Walters, Ph.D., had one of those moments. The forensic psychologist, working in private practice and with the Lindemann Mental Health Center in Boston and as an assistant professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, had been looking for a way to “give back,” a way to do meaningful volunteer work. Although she had not considered terrorism research, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Now, four years after its launch, the Society for Terrorism Research (STR) is preparing for its fourth international conference, is entering its second year of publishing the peer review journal, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, and has published a book on the subject.

Walters spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about her role and her hopes for the organization.

Q: Tell us how you got involved.

A: I had been working as a forensic psychologist at the Lindemann Mental Health Center and Justin Sinclair, Ph.D., a former practicum student from Suffolk, approached me and told me about this organization he had started with one of his professors. He asked if I would be interested in working with him.

At the time, I was feeling personally like I needed to do some volunteer work. I was fairly well established in my career but I was missing that part of my personal life. I had spent several months entertaining various volunteer options through my synagogue, through homeless programs in Boston and through various organizations. None felt that they would suit me. When he approached and told me about the organization, which is a completely volunteer organization and a non-profit, I was thrilled and I felt I would be able to contribute. He got me on a day when I had five extra minutes and I was looking for a context to give back.

It was relevant because one of the things I do in my forensic private practice is risk assessments for the DMH in Massachusetts and the study of terrorism and political aggression is steeped in understanding how and why people engage in this kind of violence.

Q: What are the organization’s mission and goals?

A: We provide a context for people from various behavioral disciplines to share research. Our idea is that psychology by itself will not provide effective models for understanding all the complex behaviors that are involved with issues of terrorism. Psychology needs to work with other disciplines and other disciplines need to work with each other, in order to come to better, more accurate and more effective understandings.

One of our goals is having STR become known across the disciplines so that our conference will be one of the places people recognize as a high quality event where they will be able to meet their colleagues and their presentation or research will be shared and used and they can collaborate with colleagues across the world.

Ultimately, our goal is to affect policy – not just in the U.S. but internationally.

Q: What is your role?

A:  I offered to organize the first conference even though at the time we didn’t know what form that would take. We had a connection with Martin Ramirez, M.D.,

Ph.D., J.D., a Spanish psychiatrist and lawyer and a psycho-biologist. He was at Harvard doing a fellowship and we began to collaborate on creating the first conference. He had organized conferences in the past and because of his connections and because STR is an international organization and we didn’t want to be too American-centric, we decided to have the first one in collaboration with his organization, Coloquios Internationales sobre Cerebro y Agresión, outside of Madrid.

I’ve continued to do conferences each year. We are in the midst of organizing our fourth in November in Colombia. This is going to be the first year outside of Europe. We had one in Poland and one in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I’ve also been on the STR governing board [as vice president]. We’ve held the four conferences and we launched a peer review journal and in January we published our first book.

Q: Tell us about the book, “Interdisciplinary Analyses of Terrorism and Political Aggression.”

A: If you read the books out there – you will find they are fairly ethno-centric, whether they come out of the U.S. or out of Scotland or Australia, where the main research centers are, but of course there is research done in other countries. What we’ve done is published a book that presents ideas and some of the research that was presented in our first conference in Spain. Countries far flung are represented in this compilation: America, England, Iraq, Iran, Australia, Canada, Scotland, Poland and Bulgaria.

Q: Are there other groups doing similar work?

A: Part of what makes us unique is that we are not institutionally affiliated. We are not associated with any university or with the Rand Corporation or any government agency.

I’ve not seen any organization that has specifically devoted to dissemination of research ideas in the way we do it. There are organizations doing really good work within the field but they have different vision statements.

Q: How is your work funded?

A: The journal is published through Taylor and Francis and there is a subscription fee. (Members receive it as part of membership).

We receive money from members and we pay for a Webmaster and to have the site created. But we are all volunteers and we don’t really have funding. The conferences are paid for by the attendees. No one gets paid for speaking.

One of the things I do is apply for grants. I am new at doing it and have not been successful yet. We hope to be able to help support our conferences, to have an honorarium for the keynote speaker and to be able to support students to go to the conference from countries whose academic universities don’t support attendance.

Q: What surprises you most about the research? What have you learned?

A: What surprises me most is that we don’t know how to describe a terrorist. There is not one profile that would describe someone who engages in terrorism or political violence. We can say that they typically are not mentally ill. But we can’t say what they are, only what they are not. That fascinates me – and interests me in such a way I would like to do research myself in that area.

Q: Why is this group important in the world right now?

A: Terrorism is a phenomenon that has touched people across the world in a major way. It is an important issue in terms of international relations. There is a perception that there is an increase in terrorist activity throughout the world. It is important to understand what that phenomenon is before we can effect change and reduce incidences of terrorism.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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