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

32 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2020

See all articles by Christopher Cook

Christopher Cook

University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Date Written: January 25, 2013


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.

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

Christopher Cook (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown ( email )

United States

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