January 19, 2011 | Jessica Folkema

Students create digital maps and analyze terror capabilities.

The class title, "The Geography of Terrorism,” had many students at hello, said Calvin professor of geology and geography Jason VanHorn.

“I think the title alone caught a lot of students’ attention,” said VanHorn. “Some were brought here by a love of geography, but others came just to find out what on earth do geography and terrorism have to do with one another?”

Over the duration of the three-week interim study, VanHorn’s students learn the history of terrorism, create maps using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology and grapple with the question “what is a Christian perspective on terrorism and counterterrorism?”

“There aren’t a lot of geographers studying terrorism,” VanHorn chuckled. “This collaboration of technologies is in its infancy. But I think there is so much to learn from it. I’m profoundly curious about what geography as a discipline has to say about terrorism.”

Visualizing terrorism

Each class period is divided into two parts: a lecture on a particular facet of terrorism theory or history and a lab in which students use GIS technology to try their hand at geo-visualizing terrorism threats. The latter has students creating maps of things such as the destruction of villages in Dafur, potential weapons of mass destruction sites in Iran and areas in Spain vulnerable to terrorist acts.

In one such lab, students created computer maps to model the range of Iranian missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Using information about projected missile numbers, distance from potential launch sites and the capabilities of the missiles Iran would be likely to use, students created a visual representation of the threat Iran poses to neighboring countries.

“That’s what’s so great about this technology,” said VanHorn. “It gives you information in a new way. These maps can actually create a picture of potential threats.”

For sophomore Bethany Van Kooten, the representations created by GIS make all of the difference.

“I absolutely love making maps with this software,” she said. “Being able to visualize where IEDs (improvised explosive device) have caused casualties in Afghanistan is so much more effective than just reading or hearing about it.”

The subject matter isn’t always easy, but VanHorn and his students think there is much to learn from it.

A messy picture

“There’s nothing clear or simple about terrorism,” mused VanHorn. “It’s messy and complex. But I believe this science can give us a better— and literal— picture of various aspects of the phenomenon.”

Students Patrick Rotunno and Joshua Potter agree.

“I’m a geography major, so I love this stuff,” admitted Rotunno. “GIS is remaking the world of geography and terrorism is such a huge, complex problem in the world. But this class also allows us to look and analyze terror [through] a new lens.”

Potter echoed, “Terrorism plays a large role in the international and American communities,” he said. “Bringing in the geographical aspect allows us to explore terrorism in a way that is not often thought of.”

The use of geography to study terrorism has intrigued VanHorn for years. His dissertation at Ohio State University was entitled “Geovisualizing terror: The geography of terrorism threat in the United States” and he says that much of his brain space is taken up with the subject.

“This is a rare perspective,” said VanHorn. “Geography isn’t new, terrorism isn’t new, but serious research in this area hadn’t been done. When I wrote my dissertation, I wanted to study something that was very relevant and at the same time create a new theory with new application.”

This is the first year “The Geography of Terrorism” is being offered at Calvin. VanHorn is grateful for the chance to bring one of his passions into the classroom.

“Interim is great because it allows me to develop a course that taps into my expertise more specifically,” said VanHorn. “I’m so passionate about this stuff and it’s rewarding to get the change to explore it with students.”

At the end of the day, VanHorn wants his work to fulfill both academic and spiritual purposes.

Intricate debate

“Terrorism research is multi-faceted and there is tremendous depth to it,” he said. “So many times talk about terrorism is sensationalized, but I believe there is a lot of space for serious academic pursuit.”

“At the same time,” he continued, “violence happens. Terror happens and we can’t always prevent it. Just look at the horror that took place in Tucson. That’s where faith comes in. In this class, we’re using technology to study terror, but we are also participating in an intricate debate about war and peace, hope and fear, security and privacy. It’s a rich and difficult discussion. I just hope that our work can participate in some sort of prevention or reconciliation.”

“Also,” he grinned, “there really is nothing cooler than mapping.”

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