Terror and the work of connecting dots at NWU
The signs Nebraska Wesleyan students saw were vague but frightening.
The body of a murdered vagrant turned up in a ditch at 82nd and Saltillo. He’d been shot in the forehead at close range.
Your stadium evacuation will be chaos. You know people will die trying to get out of there. Are you prepared for that?
Still more shocking were the autopsy results. The murdered man tested positive for the bubonic plague.
Then came the cryptic downtown scrawls in orange spray paint: “Rudra is coming”.
University of Nebraska police responded to a break-in and theft of equipment at a UNL bioengineering lab.
One UNL student’s exchange with a pair of unidentified men in a downtown bar was creepy enough for her to call the police. “Rudra,” the men told her, would play a key role in the Huskers’ upcoming spring football game. “Yeah, that Rudra is a real killer,” they joked. They advised her to steer clear of that game.
The pros from Dover
It was up to the students in Adjunct Professor of Political Science Randy Bowdish’s “Special Topics: Terrorism” course to decide what to do next. “For this exercise, they’re counterterrorism experts with the Department of Homeland Security,” Bowdish explained. “They’re ‘the pros from Dover.’ They must determine what is going to happen and how to either prevent it or respond to the crisis and mitigate the consequences.”
Six teams of three presented their crisis prevention and management plans to Bowdish, who played the roles of Lincoln’s mayor, fire chief and police chief.
The teams’ plans differed dramatically. Some students called for the spring game to be cancelled. Others wanted the game to go on, with preparations at the ready for quarantine and decontamination efforts should the worst happen.
The nature of the stolen lab equipment led students to believe that the bubonic plague bacteria could have been manipulated into its more contagious pneumonic form. Fearing an aerial dispersal of pneumonic plague via aerosol, some argued for a National Guard-imposed no-fly zone over the stadium.
Recognizing Rudra as a reference to the Hindu god of storms and death (who attacked with plague-poisoned arrows), others called for the investigation of local Hindu groups.
All received frank grilling from “Mayor” Bowdish.
“How large is this no-fly zone of yours?” he asked one team. “Are you saying you want to shoot down aircraft? Over Lincoln? What if it’s just some schmuck who doesn’t know how to use his radio?”
To another: “Your stadium evacuation will be chaos. You know people will die trying to get out of there. Are you prepared for that?”
“You want to investigate Hindu groups? How is that not religious profiling? Are you ready for lawsuits?”
“So you’re going to quarantine 60,000 to 80,000 football fans? Where? For how long?”
“You want to move the nation’s strategic reserve of antibiotics based on what? Barroom talk and rumors?”
Tossing 18 students—most of whom were sophomores—headfirst into this realistic doomsday mess and then hurling pointed and difficult questions at them might sound like the work of a teacher with a sadistic streak. That’s not Bowdish.
“Keep pushing. Keep plugging,” he encouraged students struggling in their presentations. “If you can handle this scenario,” he told the class, “you can handle just about anything.”
Bowdish brought more than an abstract, academic interest in terrorism to the classroom. He’s a retired U.S. Navy captain who’s had more than one close brush with al-Qaida.
In 2000, he commanded the USS Simpson (FFG 56), which was part of the George Washington Fighter Group then serving in the Mediterranean. The Simpson and the USS Cole (DDG 67) were slated to separate from their Battle Group and move together to the Persian Gulf to enforce UN sanctions against Iraq. However, needed repairs delayed Bowdish's frigate, and the Cole went ahead unaccompanied through the Red Sea.
While refueling at a port in Yemen, the Cole was attacked by al-Qaida suicide bombers. Seventeen sailors died; 39 were wounded.
In September of the following year, Bowdish was set to begin work at the Pentagon. He had a lunch date scheduled with a Navy friend that he’d soon be working alongside. That lunch never happened. Bowdish’s friend was among those killed when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon.
“Sometimes I’ll hear people say, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,’” Bowdish said. “I cringe when I hear that. They’re war criminals, plain and simple.” He said when you target civilians as al-Qaida had in Tanzania, the U.S. and elsewhere, you throw political legitimacy out the window. (Meanwhile, when you speak to Nebraska Wesleyan students with studied knowledge, firsthand experience and personal conviction, your professorial legitimacy tends to go through the roof.)
And while most students in Bowdish’s class were only 9 years old during the September 11 attacks, their relationship to terrorism issues are also often quite personal. “I am from Belfast,” said Ellen Forester, who was on the first team of students to present crisis management plans to Bowdish. “Being from Ireland, I am well aware of the presence and impact terrorism can have (on those who) experience it firsthand.”
Nathan Dawdy, a sophomore philosophy major and Theta Chi member from Lincoln, admitted to some nerves as he and his classmates prepared to present their plans to Capt. Bowdish. “We were in shock a little bit,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘What the hell is he going to say to me?’ It was eye-opening, the way he challenged us and all the practical implications we had to deal with.”
Think like a terrorist
Bowdish didn’t necessarily disagree with all of the measures he scrutinized. But he wanted his students to understand the consequences of even their wisest choices. Counterterrorism strategy often requires leaders to choose between options ranging from awful to horrible. Sometimes, the alternative to a logistical nightmare is hell on earth.
And unlike most class projects, Bowdish said this problem didn’t offer students the luxury of a solution. “I intentionally set up this scenario so students wouldn’t have enough information to ‘solve’ the problem.”
There would be no Scooby-Doo ending here, where evil is unmasked at the last moment thanks only to some inquisitive and meddling youngsters. Instead, Bowdish applied a different rubric to evaluate his students’ performance.
What conclusions would they draw about the nature of the threat?
What steps would they take to attempt to prevent an attack?
And what measures would they implement to mitigate and manage a crisis should an attack occur?
To evaluate the threat, students examined what the terrorist group had communicated thus far. They found precious little to study. There were no demands to free prisoners. No calls to get the U.S. military out of this or that country. No political demands of any kind.
“Sometimes, silence itself is a clue,” Bowdish said.
That silence rang in Dawdy’s ears. He’d be driving in his car or sitting at the Theta Chi house, “just thinking about this [scenario], trying to unravel what’s going on here. It was so real.”
He and a few of his classmates drew astute conclusions from the terrorists’ silence. Said one presenter, “We believe we’re dealing with an apocalyptic utopian terrorist group.”
Such groups, Bowdish explained, aren’t interested in reforming people or swaying governments. “They want to wipe the slate clean and start over.”
Brad Crosson of Norwich University’s Diplomacy Department described this type of terrorist group in the summer 2010 issue of Global Security Studies. “[Apocalyptic utopian groups] believe that a depraved and wronged world needs to be ruined in order to bring about spiritual salvation.” Crosson called them “religious cults with political aims that transcend the confines of the state.”
After “Rudra” comes, survivors of the plague—including the potentially vaccinated group members—will be free to establish their sought after utopia. In the meantime, there’s little need to quibble, make demands or communicate much of anything to the public. Rudra will do the talking.
NWU students proposed an array of measures to keep the Rudra threat from unfolding. The no-fly zones, the increased security at Memorial Stadium, the calls to check fans at the stadium gates for aerosol cans were all rational responses to the perceived threat. Sadly, none of them would have proven effective had Bowdish’s Rudra scenario been real.
The apocalyptic utopian group didn’t intend to spread its pneumonic plague bacteria with a stolen crop duster. Nor did the terrorists plan to smuggle aerosol cans into the stadium to spray during the game. They released no army of infected fleas.
“Effective counterterrorism,” Bowdish explained, “requires you to think like an effective terrorist.”
Convinced that airplanes and aerosol cans would prove toothless or too easily thwarted, the plot’s designer chose to think outside the box—or, in this case, outside the stadium.
Ahead of the spring game in one of the busiest areas outside the teeming Memorial Stadium, we find an innocuous-looking street vendor wearing a white apron. She stood at her gas grill, preparing hotdogs and burgers for hungry Husker fans. On the ground next to her rested a spare propane tank.
Her attack involved no spectacle. There was no Bond-movie maniacal monologue. The woman simply made change for two hotdogs, leaned to one side and twisted open the spare tank’s valve. A tiny squeak and hiss, and the pneumonic plague bacteria quietly fed into the air, onto the red clothes and into the lungs of passing football fans.
They never knew what hit them.
Experience as teacher
Bowdish wasn’t disappointed in his students’ failure to stop the plot. Given the information they had, there was little chance they could. But that didn’t lessen Dawdy’s frustration. “I wanted so badly to nail this!” he said. “I wanted to figure it out.”
Hanging in the balance for him was more than some fictional lives and a letter grade. Dawdy wanted to test his meddle. He wanted to learn as much as he possibly could about counterterrorism. “And yes,” he said, “I wanted to impress my professor.”
On the whole, Bowdish was impressed with his students’ work. “Look at what they had to deal with. Counterterrorism crosses so many disciplines,” he said. “It’s political science, sure. But it’s also biology, criminology, psychology, rhetoric, religion, history and communication.” (Dawdy would add philosophy, his chosen major, to that mix. “We had to understand how other people see and think about their world,” he said. “That’s what philosophy majors do.”)
Bowdish said such projects give students an arena to think critically about problems that refuse to remain tucked neatly inside the cubbyhole of a single academic discipline. Forester appreciated the project’s practicality, whether or not she continues to study counterterrorism after she returns to Northern Ireland at the end of the academic year. “This exercise equipped us with ‘real life’ skills for the workplace, like having to do professional presentations under pressure and having to work as a member of a group.”
Increasingly, interdisciplinary and experiential projects like this one are playing a central part of learning in the liberal arts at Nebraska Wesleyan. They have the potential, in fact, to reshape the university’s entire curriculum.
“Experiential learning is a differentiator for Nebraska Wesleyan,” said Kelly Eaton, chair of the Political Science Department and assistant provost for experiential learning and student success. Eaton is part of a major curriculum reform effort stretching from Academic Affairs and faculty offices to Residential Education and student life. “This focus on building a custom body of experiences for students sets us apart from other schools in the region,” she said.
Eaton defined experiential learning as “the process of making meaning from direct experiences.” That process, she said, is characterized by “active engagement and critical reflection.” She called Bowdish’s Rudra scenario an unusual example of experiential learning at NWU. Most undergraduate projects don’t involve murder investigations or biological weapons. And, unlike most experiential learning projects at NWU, the Rudra exercise took place almost exclusively in the classroom.
Eaton said more common examples of experiential learning projects at Nebraska Wesleyan involve internships in Lincoln or Washington, D.C., through the Capitol Hill Internship Program (CHIP). They involve service learning projects both down the street and across oceans. They entail collaborative research and study abroad.
Counterterrorism crosses so many disciplines. It's political science, sure. But it's also biology, criminology, psychology, rhetoric, religion, history and communication.
And while other experiential learning opportunities at Nebraska Wesleyan may not instill terror, they do regularly ask students to step outside their comfort zones. For Desirae TePoel, a senior Spanish and communication studies major from Malmo, Neb., an experiential learning project in Associate Professor of Communication Karla Jensen’s “Intercultural Communication” course took her to Lincoln
High School where she worked with immigrants and refugees on their English speaking skills. “I took my service learning experience as a way to give back,” TePoel said.
Such projects are becoming more fully integrated into student experiences every semester. Service represents today much more than the occasional hoop a student like TePoel must clear on her way to a degree. It’s growing steadily more integrated into the Nebraska Wesleyan experience. TePoel said, “(Associate Professor of Communication) Dave Whitt is always telling me, ‘Experience is just as much your teacher as I am.’”
Dot collection vs. dot connection
That sense of integration is key for Kathy Wolfe, dean of Nebraska Wesleyan’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Our learning outcomes are about building knowledge, skills and values. Then we must take that one significant step further by helping students bring that knowledge, those skills and those values together.
“When students can articulate that integration,” Wolfe said, “they come away with something people just don’t get at every school. They come away with what I call a strong narrative of self.”
Wolfe said, “After four years of integrated, experiential learning at Nebraska Wesleyan University, students should be able to say, ‘This is how my passion comes together with my skill set. This is how I can link what I know with what I want to do with my life.’”
Such an approach, Wolfe said, builds in students a sense of social responsibility and idealism. She suggested we too often lump idealism with naivety. “But we should want our students to graduate with strong ideals and ambitious aims,” she said, adding that to expect less is to fail the student.
Regarding the university’s ongoing efforts to reform its curriculum, Wolfe places a strong emphasis on integration. Liberal arts universities, she said, are moving away from a “cafeteria-style” model where students choose “a little of this and a little of that” from a buffet of options. In such a model, the work of integrating those selections is assumed or left to chance. Professors imagine that students come to see connections between the different disciplines they study, but precious little is done to ensure they do.
In the place of that cafeteria model, professors and administrators are working to develop for Nebraska Wesleyan something more akin to a loom. In one model still in process, students would select from a group of six or eight thematic, interdisciplinary threads such as “Water” or “Global Health.” Students would then follow their chosen threads to a series of integrated courses weaving through multiple disciplines in the arts, humanities and sciences—courses that would all speak from different perspectives on the chosen theme.
Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts Jay Chipman (’77) co-chairs the university’s curriculum process team. “One of our constants from the very beginning of this ongoing, sustained process has been ‘learning through experience,’” he said. “There is a commitment on this faculty to pursuing experiential learning opportunities for our students in a more intentional way—opportunities that capitalize on the things we’re already doing well.”
Helping students to integrate their experiences into their learning, Chipman said, is a part of that work. Capstone projects both within the major and more broadly across multiple disciplines would help students to integrate their experiences into Wolfe’s “strong narrative of self.”
I want to apply what I've learned here to protect innocent people.
“A liberal arts education should be about connecting dots,” Wolfe said, “not collecting them.”
And here we find another essential overlap between a liberal arts education and the counterterrorism issues that Bowdish’s students tackled. You can gather all the intelligence conceivably within your reach. You can exhaust subjects (and yourself) with tireless investigation. But unless you have the skills to integrate that material—unless you have the ability to see and draw relevant connections from among your collected dots—you’re left with something short of intelligence. You’re left with white noise.
The work of connecting dots—like those between the body of a homeless man on Saltillo Road and a hotdog vendor at the corner of Stadium and T—is incredibly hard and important. After a semester of experience in Bowdish’s terrorism course, Dawdy may not be ready to drop the counterterrorism thread.
“I’m not sure yet what I’ll do after I graduate,” Dawdy said, “but I’m thinking about joining the Navy. About pursuing OCS (Officer Candidate School) and studying counterterrorism and intelligence.”
He said, “I’ve always considered service. That’s a big emphasis at Nebraska Wesleyan. I see it as a practical use of my philosophy major, and, really, of my whole experience here. I want to learn as much as I can about how other people think. And I want to apply what I've learned here to protect innocent people.”
Wolfe would be the first to call that a pretty strong narrative of self.