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Christopher Dickey on Terrorism, and Moving Beyond a Famous Father

International journalist speaks tonight at Metcalf Hall


Christopher Dickey, Newsweek’s Paris bureau chief, is an expert on terrorism, counterterrorism, and insurgencies. Photo by Damien Donck/Newsweek

Christopher Dickey, son of the late poet and novelist James Dickey, says he couldn’t have written the 1998 memoir about his relationship with his larger-than-life dad “until I had reached a point in my career where people didn’t ask if he was my father, where it didn’t even occur to them we were related.”

Dickey (COM’74) is long past that point. Currently Newsweek’s Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor, he trekked through the mountain forests of Nicaragua with Contra rebels in the 1980s and traveled to Libya when it was bombed by the United States in 1986. He also saw journalistic action in Iraq in 1993, in Pristina and Belgrade during the Kosovo War in 1999, and in Israel at the height of suicide bombings in 2002.

Dickey’s “Shadowland” column which appears on Newsweek Online, offers breaking news and perspective about counterinsurgency, terrorism, espionage, and developments in the Middle East. He has written for Foreign Affairs, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, among other publications, and has authored several novels and works of nonfiction. His most recent book is Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force — The NYPD (2009), which details New York’s singular approach to combating terrorism.

The Friends of the Libraries at Boston University, together with the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, will host a talk with Dickey this evening. HGARC recently acquired Dickey’s papers, some of which will be on display tonight.

BU Today: How was Securing the City received by the NYPD?
I appeared with NYC police commissioner Ray Kelly on a panel in New York, and was signing my books afterward and was surprised to see that he had signed some of them even before I had a chance to.

How invasive is the technology at NYPD’s disposal?
It can be very invasive. While the razzle-dazzle stuff can all be fun when you’re riding around in helicopters or making a TV series, the real core of what NYPD does is on the streets, identifying sources, getting to know people and sometimes arresting them and coercing them. That’s where the strength of the NYPD is, and that’s what sets it apart from a lot of federal agencies involved with counterterrorism.

How does a government or police force reconcile liberty and security?
There’s a constant tension. I think the popular sense of the rules changed after 9/11. There’s always going to be a trade-off. You can’t have cops moving through communities, penetrating cells (and sometimes they’re not going to be cells), or have the feds listening in on suspects (who sometimes turn out to be innocent) without jeopardizing civil rights and liberties. On the other hand, no one wants to defend the abstract notion of civil liberties and wind up with another 9/11.

One criticism Kelly had of my book was that I should have devoted a chapter to lawyers who work for the NYPD, because one of the things they’re always doing is looking at the legal ramifications so they don’t get sued. They’re still going to get sued, but they want to know they’re on firm footing.

It’s easy to imagine a situation where you have different characters who could be much more corrupt and much more sinister if they had the same power, and I worry about that. Kelly’s predecessor, Bernard Kerik, has been indicted, for God’s sake. Would you want him to have the kind of power that Kelly has at his disposal? I think not.

What can Boston learn from the NYPD?
The NYPD has extraordinary resources. It’s got 35,000 sworn officers on its force. LAPD has fewer than 10,000, San Francisco has 2,000. Boston is a few thousand cops.

But the broadest, most important lesson is that instead of looking at immigrant populations as a threat, the NYPD found ways to integrate immigrants into the force and develop a huge cadre who speak Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, all languages that are useful in the fight against terrorism. They can move within communities, not only the real communities, but the Web communities, to get the kind of intelligence that’s needed.

If you have people who really know how to work the streets, who speak the language of the people they’re dealing with, who know the cultures, and at the same time you’re able to plug into databases that tell you everything from the levels of electricity consumption, which can be important in cases where people are cooking up bombs, to the tattoo database, which is very important in identifying criminals these days, and you’re working with the federal government as well, then you make everybody safer.

You’ve covered fanatics and insurgents for much of your career. What commonalities do you see?
People get distracted with questions of ideology and clash of civilizations and frameworks of “us versus them.” That doesn’t really help in understanding these terrorists and insurgent leaders. There is what might be looked at, in shorthand, as “TNT” — testosterone, narrative, theater.

Testosterone: the core of terrorism and insurgents is young men who want to prove themselves.

Narrative is a better concept than ideology. The narrative of oppression, of accumulated wrongs, is hugely important to revolutionaries and to many terrorist movements. It can be a narrative of occupation, whether Palestine, Iraq, or Afghanistan, or 250 years ago the British occupation of the United States. Those are all very important in creating the mind-set that generates insurgent and terrorist activities.

And finally, theater. It’s conspicuous in the al-Qaeda years, the idea that you want to do something so spectacular that it grabs world attention. Perhaps one of the problems al-Qaeda has had is it hasn’t found a way to top 9/11. But it is amazing the extent to which these guys in al-Qaeda, in the 1990s and thru 9/11, were watching disaster movies, because they love the spectacle of collapsing buildings. It’s this whole Hollywood thing. Abu Zubaydah, one of the major players picked up after 9/11 — though not as important as he was made out to be — talked as he was being waterboarded about planning to attack the bridge in the Godzilla movie. The FBI guys had no idea what he was talking about because no one had seen that total loser of a movie with Matthew Broderick in 1998, but the al-Qaeda guys loved the scene with Godzilla on the Brooklyn Bridge.

How has the Arab point of view changed since the Obama administration took over?
There’s a much more positive attitude toward the United States and toward Obama. But the Arabs are pretty cynical and tired. The conflict they’ve been involved in has been going on for a very long time and no one has been able to deliver a solution. Their hopes are raised, but it’s interesting to see that Obama’s approval rating in the Arab world is not as astronomically high as it is in Europe. I think there was a hell of a lot of hope with his speech in Cairo, but you can feel that hope waning.

Switching gears, in Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son, your book about your relationship with your father, was there anything you left out or wish you could change?
I would have taken out the line, “He was a sonofabitch I hated.” Even though that was true as presented, it’s a line that people fixed on, so much so that many reviewers wrote about the book as if that was the theme and substance. Really, the book is about how much I loved my father and how we overcame the difficulties between us, which is a better story and true.

I would also want to write a postscript. In the book, there’s a whole flood of memories and appreciations and context, but I didn’t know where my father was in my memory. As a result, it really didn’t have the cathartic effect that I hoped. I realize I want to remember him not as anybody I’d ever known, but as he wanted to be remembered — as the young man who was dynamic, the high school and college football player, the would-be poet, incredibly handsome and going off to war. That was really where his life and memory were centered in his own head.

What advice do you have for children of the powerful and celebrated?
Don’t fight it. But don’t think that it will accomplish much for you. I think everybody uses every advantage they can, and if you don’t you’re foolish. But the truth is that beyond a few introductions, it’s rare that your parentage will take you far. If you inherit millions or billions of dollars, that’s a different issue, but your father’s or mother’s talent or reputation won’t do you much good. You’re out on your own.

Christopher Dickey speaks this evening, as part of the Friends Speaker Series, at the GSU’s Metcalf Ballroom, 775 Commonwealth Ave. The event, which includes a lecture, a reception, and the exhibition of his collection, starts at 5:30 p.m. and is free to members of the Friends of the Libraries at Boston University and to BU students with a valid BU ID; $25 for the public. For tickets or more information, call 617-353-3696 or e-mail archives@bu.edu.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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