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Winter 2003/2004
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"Crossing Borders"
A quarterly column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers


The Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism

Where Do We Go From Here?

Doug RichardsonThe Association of American Geographers (AAG), with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), recently concluded a research project entitled "The Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism." The project was undertaken as part of NSF's urgent call for research associated with the recent terrorist attacks on the United States.

The resulting research agenda and recommendations have been widely disseminated to national and international government agencies, the geographic research community, and related disciplines. Outcomes of this study also include the recent publication of a groundbreaking book on the topic.

This is an ongoing process, and we invite the participation of the international geographic research and GIS user communities as we collectively continue to evolve this work in the years ahead.

Key Research Areas

In our discussions with national policy officials and geographic researchers, three broad areas of critical national research priority have repeatedly emerged. These areas are geospatial data and technologies infrastructure, underlying causes of terrorism, and vulnerability science and hazards. Examples of key recommendations in these areas are summarized below.

Geospatial Data and Technologies Infrastructure

The use of geospatial data and technologies was critical during the rescue, relief, and long-term recovery from the September 11, 2001, events. Their prominence now in planning for international efforts to address terrorism suggests many pressing research needs, both short term and long term, in the area of geographic information science and technology. Key action items include establishing a distributed national geospatial infrastructure as a foundation for homeland security. This infrastructure should be designed to serve other needs, as well, such as local government, planning, environmental protection, and economic development.

Research Needs

  • What are our society's critical lifelines and infrastructure vulnerabilities, and how can we develop tools such as GIS to model and map their spatial linkages and interdependencies?
  • What are the research challenges for continued integration of transformational geographic technologies (e.g., real-time GPS/GIS, remote sensing, and wireless mobile computing) to enhance disaster response, national security, and infrastructure vulnerability assessment? What is the potential for using these integrated geographic management systems to address complex processes related to terrorism such as disaster response, reduction of world poverty, sustainable development, and a host of other needs?
  • What were the variable geographic and economic impacts of the September 11 events, and how can we develop better spatial/economic models to predict variable short- and long-term geographic impacts of other potential terrorist threats or hazards?
  • In an era of heightened security and precautions, how can individual human rights and privacy be protected when the powerful capabilities of advanced geographic technologies, as with so many other advances in technology, have inherent within them a risk for potential abuse? What social responsibilities will those employing spatial technologies in the future have for human rights, privacy, and related issues?

The Root Causes of Terrorism

One of geography's great strengths is its ability to synthesize information about places in order to understand the linkages between regions and the manifestation of global processes at very local levels. The rich set of contexts advanced by regional specialists can assist in understanding the root causes of terrorism. These should be pursued in a systematic and analytically robust manner through a national interdisciplinary research program on the underlying causes of terrorism.

Research Needs

  • How has the political control of space (or lack thereof) fostered terrorism? How do stateless zones and states shift their patterns through time, through changing environmental conditions and population migrations?
  • What are the differential impacts of globalization and how are these manifested spatially? What is the geography of inclusion and exclusion, and how might these spheres be influential in reducing or heightening spaces of terrorism and/or conflict?
  • What is the geographic variation, internationally, of the perception of the United States and its role in the world? How do these perceptions affect, positively or negatively, the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism?
  • How might a greater emphasis on geography education foster better understanding of the world and its diversity and cooperation among peoples and societies?

Vulnerability Science and Hazards Research

The meaning of vulnerability has taken on new interpretations since September 11. We need to broaden our understanding of vulnerability beyond an exposure–response framework to a more holistic view that includes exposure, susceptibility, resistance, resilience, and adaptation. We need a major effort to develop the basic data, models, and methods for conducting vulnerability assessments at all spatial scales.

Research Needs

  • How can we spatially delineate the vulnerability of people and places and develop a comparative indicator to assess where vulnerabilities are greatest and why?
  • How do we ensure the continuity of operations during an emergency and thus prepare for mutual support in terms of surprise? What types of data and information are required to ensure an adequate response?
  • With regard to bioterrorism, what are the geographic conditions and factors that affect the diffusion of purposely introduced diseases among populations of humans, animals, or plants, and how are these different from naturally occurring diseases?
  • How do we include intangibles such as values, symbols, and landscapes of fear in vulnerability assessments? How important is the perception of risk rather than a quantitative estimate of it in determining societal or individual response?

Working Together . . .

It is important to bring all of our geographic resources to bear on this important national and international priority. Collaborative efforts between organizations such as AAG, Esri, the International Geographical Union, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, and many others—as well as interdisciplinary linkages and partnerships with federal agencies, private firms, and international nongovernmental organizations—will be required as we all work toward refining and achieving this ambitious agenda.

The full results of the research undertaken to date by the AAG/NSF project are now available in the book entitled The Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism. Edited by Susan L. Cutter, Douglas Richardson, and Thomas J. Wilbanks, the book includes a foreword by Dr. Jack Marburger, the top White House science official, and an introduction by Dr. Philip Rubin of the National Science Foundation. An epilogue to the book by Jack Dangermond, president of Esri, provides an excellent perspective from the private sector and a poignant personal account of the events after September 11.

Published by Routledge, The Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism is written for policy makers and local governments, as well as researchers, and for use as a supplemental text for courses in geography and related disciplines. The book may be ordered from AAG (at www.aag.org or by calling 202-234-1450) at a price of $15.00 for AAG members or $20 for nonmembers.

Feel free to contact me (e-mail: drichardson@aag.org) with any questions, comments, or ideas.

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