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The Advantages and Unintended Consequences of Using Film to Teach Terrorism

By Christopher Cook, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Full tittle: One Man's Freedom Fighter on Film is Another Man's Terrorist during the Classroom Discussion:The Advantages and Unintended Consequences of Using Film to Teach Terrorism.


People are often startled that I teach a course on terrorism. They half jokingly ask if I teach students how to commit it. Yet, the interdisciplinary study of terrorism has grown over the last decade and will continue to do so. Colleges and Universities have expanded their offerings on the subject. Terrorism is often cross listed with criminal justice, and intelligence studies. However, a constant challenge of teaching terrorism is the mixed audience of students and differing expectations of course content. The online course at Penn State is made up of traditional students, returning adults, active and retired military, and once I had an FBI agent who specialized in counter terrorism. Such a diverse audience begs the question of how are we to teach the course? Is there a difference between the academic studies and theoretical discussions on one side and the practitioner on the other? This problem has been exacerbated both online, and in the classroom by a generation of visual learners. Think about how powerful it is for students to watch news coverage of 9/11, or have students with combat experience in Afghanistan. These experiences are far more powerful than reading a quantitative study of terrorist activities and then finding the flaws in its methodologies. It behooves the teacher to find new ways to mix up the curriculum.

This paper examines the pedagogical strategies of using fictional films in a course on terrorism (both in residence and online). It is the hope that these films can bring life to the abstract concepts that students wrestle with in their readings. In this paper I examine the use of three particular films: First, is the famous Battle of Algiers (1966), which explores the Algerian war of independence against France, and specifically addresses issues of urban guerrilla warfare, and the limitations of counter terrorism still relevant today. After all the French won the battle but lost the war. The film also helps visualize what David Rapoport (2002) calls the second wave of terrorism. The second chosen is the Palestinian film, Paradise Now (2005), about the journey of two suicide bombers heading to Israel. This film not only speaks to the literature of scholars like Robert Pape, but serves as a window to the study of psychology and religion. I use Paradise Now as the springboard for role of religion in terrorism (though it is important to point out that religion is not what necessarily drives these two Palestinian men). Finally, I examine In the Name of the Father (1993), while ostensibly about the wrongfully arrested Guilford Four and the United Kingdom's war against the IRA, the film allows a broader class room discussion of the problematic of fighting terrorism in a democracy that values civil liberties. A perfect illustration is how students react to Daniel Day Lewis as Gerry Conlon and compare that to young Arab men wrongfully arrested after 9/11.

By examining these three films this paper also hopes to continue expanding the study of film use in the classroom. Films are a dynamic and interactive process over how social reality will be perceived. While most of these films are based on true stories, they have to some extent been fictionalized to suit the dramatic needs of the audience and the financial expectations of the industry. For Americans the war on terrorism has been fought in the modern 24 hour/7 days a week news cycle. I argue that if done properly, popular films about terrorism can serve as a stimulating jumping off point to illustrate the theories, concepts, and issues discussed in the course.


I start this paper off with a warning: teaching terrorism is a difficult with or without film. Students have strong emotions about the subject; some have personally known victims of 9/11, and even more have fought in the ongoing war on terrorism. For them the subject is personal and not an esoteric debate. I do not condone the use of violence to solve problems. The use of film in teaching this course is not designed to shock students, or provide them a forum for jingoistic voyeurism of death and destruction but instead highlight core concepts and theories in the study of terrorism.

As a guiding thread for the course I use an old saying, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." The quote has been around for many years. Some say it can be traced back to a 1975 novel about the I.R.A. called Harry's Game. 1 But it seems to have been common usage by the late 1950's. In an April 1957 letter to the Time Magazine editor a reader complained about the dueling coverage of violence in Hungary and Cyprus: "Would a dastardly 'terrorist' become a heroic 'freedom fighter' if he happened to be a Hungarian instead of a Cypriot?" 2 Many students scoff at this saying. But the course is designed to explore competing definitions of the term and how they uncomfortably overlap with freedom fighters, guerillas and insurgents.

People are often surprised to find out that terrorism has been taught at colleges and universities for decades. However, because of the events of September 11, 2001 (9/11) schools across America now regularly teach the subject as part of the curriculum of political science, sociology, and graduate and certificate programs in new fields like Homeland Security. However, as much as terrorism has been analyzed and dissected there is a lag in research on how to teach the subject. In order to remedy that situation several universities in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security have put together a one week Summer Workshop on Teaching about Terrorism. Based on his experiences with the workshop, Gregory Miller lists some of the common concerns that educators of terrorism face in an article entitled, "Teaching about Terrorism" in PS: Political Science. 3 Miller's work is an important building block to a wider discussion of the pedagogy of terrorism.

This paper's contribution to the field is an examination of using film to teach terrorism and its unintended consequences. Three films are examined here: Battle of Algiers (1966, dir. Pontecorvo) which looks at the Algerian National Liberation Front (F.L.N.) and its quest to win their independence from France. A film that places terrorism in a historical context of decolonization and nationalism, while highlighting the timelessness of terrorist tactics. Secondly, I screen Paradise Now (2005, dir. Abu-Assad) about the decision of two men in a nameless Palestinian terrorist organization planning a suicide attack on Israel. This film continues the discussion of nationalism, while examining suicide terrorism and the role of religion. Finally, we watch In the Name of the Father (1993, dir. Sheridan), which shows the British wrongly imprisoning people trying to end the Irish Republican Army's (I.R.A.) bombing campaign in the 1970's. This film is screened to show the ramifications of fighting terrorism in a democratic society. None of the films chosen are about the United States, Iraq, Afghanistan or al Qaeda and two are not even in English. This was done intentionally to move students beyond an American centric understanding of the subject and see universal patterns in the use of terror to solve political problems.

These films were screened in their entirety for my "Politics of Terrorism" course at Penn State University, the Behrend College; Penn State's World Campus online; and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. The students for the "in resident" class were made up of traditional students from Western Pennsylvania. However, the online course brought in nontraditional students from all over the world including many who are still active participants in the military. For example, I have had students watching these films from their military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. I even had a couple of students who worked in the counterterrorism unit at the F.B.I. After the films were watched students discussed the film in the classroom or through online discussion boards.

To explore the connections of using film in the classroom this paper will first examine competing definitions of terrorism. Secondly, we will take a cursory look at the nascent literature of terrorism on film and the pedagogy of using film in the classroom These brief introductions serve as a spring board to the examination of the three films. The thread that connects all three terrorist groups is not religion but nationalism. While we abhor the violence, these films force us to confront troubling questions about its use and more importantly who has the legitimacy to wield it.

Suggested Citation:

Cook, Christopher, One Man's Freedom Fighter on Film is Another Man's Terrorist During the Classroom Discussion: The Advantages and Unintended Consequences of Using Film to Teach Terrorism (January 25, 2013). 2013 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference Paper. Available at SSRN: or


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