Terrorism has plagued the United States throughout its history, though some seem to believe it began with the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11 attacks. A new book by a Binghamton University adjunct faculty member argues that studying the history of terrorism in this country can lead to an understanding of the changing nature of the problem, methods for coping with the threat and the psychological, political and legal principles involved.
Joseph T. McCann’s Terrorism on American Soil, published this fall by Sentient Publications, features more than three dozen case studies of attacks in the United States, dating from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Each one incorporates a legal or psychological element in a way accessible to a general audience.
“There have been many terrorist attacks throughout our history, by many different individuals and for different reasons, some of which overlap,” McCann said. “Certain trends in terrorism repeat themselves. Some of the issues that were present a hundred years ago with anarchists are the same issues we’re struggling with today.”
McCann, 47, a clinical psychologist at Binghamton General Hospital who also holds a law degree, is an adjunct assistant professor in the Psychology Department.
He teaches an undergraduate seminar each fall titled Psychology, Terrorism and Law. “I want to give students a broad introduction to the topic,” he said. “Terrorism is an emotional topic. I have had some students who’ve been directly affected by terrorism. I try to approach it in a balanced, academic way.”
McCann traces his interest in terrorism to his early forensic work with courts and jails. He used to do violence risk assessments and threat assessments for schools and others.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, McCann did a lot of reading, especially about the difficulties in identifying risks and concerns over profiling. He found many of the issues corresponded to his previous work.
“You don’t find the science of psychology applied to terrorism too often because terrorism is so hard to research and study,” he said. “I found that some of the most useful and interesting reading I did was in history.”
McCann, who was working with a colleague on a book titled Minds on Trial about famous cases in law and psychology, decided he’d try a similar case study approach to terrorism.
“My main purpose was to educate the general public the way that I was educating myself about terrorism,” he said. “I find that writing a book is the best way to learn about a topic in any depth.”
Terrorism on American Soil is McCann’s eighth book. He has written five textbooks on topics such as personality assessment, a children’s book and Minds on Trial. He hasn’t settled on his next writing project, though he’s interested in exploring terrorism and gender as well as going into more depth about the 1920 attack on Wall Street.
He finished the latest book on a rather upbeat note, especially given the subject matter.
“I’m very concerned, and I think the threat is certainly very great,” McCann said. “But I’m also optimistic. There have been times in history when the threat has been grave, like during the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century when anarchism was such a prominent threat. But there has been a positive rebound following each of those periods. I can’t deny, though, that the stakes are higher today and the methods of attack are much more dangerous than they were decades ago.”
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