Clear-Eyed Definition

Jim Steinbaugh builds boats when he’s not lecturing on world politics.

Terrorism is such a fraught term these days that it’s understandable to think it’s a modern concept. Jim Steinbaugh, who’s teaching a four-hour class on the subject this month at Blue Ridge Community College’s Center for Lifelong Learning, thinks some historical perspective is needed.

Part of his program, drawn from a semester-long course on the subject he taught at the college level, looks as far back as the Bible and the martyrdom of Judas Maccabeus for context, and moves onward through the centuries to encompass both World Wars, the Vietnam conflict, and more recent kidnappings and murders for political ends. “Believe it or not, in the early days of my interest in terror and terrorists, there were a lot of them that were blue-eyed and blonde,” he says. “It’s very easy to focus on generality instead of comprehending circumstances. I strongly believe in the need for avoiding simple stereotyping.”

Steinbaugh’s familiarity with this darker side of international relations grew during his 30 years of service with the Navy, most of it as a Navy SEAL. He retired from active service nearly 15 years ago, but taught physical and cultural geography at a community college in New Jersey before concentrating on curricula that included Homeland Security issues and terrorism, as well as teaching high-school level ROTC classes in leadership and national security.

After retiring to Hendersonville — where he spends his days building boats — and attending several of BRCC’s Lifelong Learning seminars on various topics, the opportunity arose to share his knowledge with a new audience. “BRCC is really the poster child for reaching out to the whole community,” says Steinbaugh. “The courses I attended there were every bit as well-delivered and comprehensive as any I experienced at the Pentagon.”

In an era that’s become hyper-sensitive to terrorist threats, a clear-eyed definition of what, exactly, constitutes a terrorist act is even more important. “Imprecise language keeps the intellectual fog bank in place, inhibiting rational discussion and a respectful acknowledgment for the forcefulness necessary to meet, stop, and destroy a threat to one’s civilization,” Steinbaugh declares, noting that simply classifying a terrorist incident as a criminal act is counterproductive. He explains: “It is an attack with the express intention to undermine or change a legitimate government. Politicians and activists are way off base describing some issue or perceived inadequacy as a terroristic act, or the individual or group they hold responsible as a terrorist. Yet, many in the public domain say, ‘yeah, terrorist.’” From such a broad definition, he says, the brutality and destruction of any war could be labeled as terrorism.

His course is intended to provide context to a subject prone to emotional rather than rational discussion. Besides a historical review, he’ll examine motivations and objectives for terrorist acts and a survey of three general types of terrorists, “grounding the audience in the mechanics so that knowledge can be applied” to contemporary issues.

“I hope people will leave this class with an optimism that we, the American people, are realistically safe,” Steinbaugh says. “I hope they will have the confidence to walk down the street or board an airplane without fear … I think I’ll be able to give my audience a better understanding of world events than many talking heads.”

“Terrorism 101” will be held in two 2-hour sessions on Monday, December 4 and Monday, December 11 from 10am-noon at Blue Ridge Community College (Patton Building, Room 150). $30 for Lifelong Learning Center members, $40 for non-members. For more information, visit blueridge.edu/continuing-education/blue-ridge-center-lifelong-learning.

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