Delving into the darkness

Professor Mark Hamm is a leading terrorism expert — a go-to source for the world’s leaders and media about the most dangerous criminals.

You’ve heard the expression about death and taxes. Might want to add terrorism to that list.

“We’ve always had terrorism. We’ve always had bad politicians,” said Mark Hamm, professor in Indiana State’s criminal justice and criminology department. “The first assassins — the first people who tried to change power with violence — were terrorists.”

Hamm, who has clocked more than 30 years at State, is a leading terrorism expert — a go-to source for the world’s leaders and media about the most dangerous criminals. His new book, “The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism,” examines why 40 percent of these types of attacks happen in the U.S.

Mark Hamm

“What has changed is the lone wolf terrorist’s access to firearms, to high-capacity magazines, handguns and assault rifles. That is so easy in the U.S.,” Hamm said. “We show in this book how the United States leads the world in lone wolf terrorism.”

Hamm defines a lone wolf terrorist by four characteristics: a person who perpetrates political violence, does not belong to (but often identifies with) an organized group such as ISIS, acts alone (as opposed to the pair of Boston Marathon bombers), and does not commit violence out of grief or the pursuit of profit, vengeance or fame.

“The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism” looks at cases from 1940 to mid-2016, with the Orlando nightclub shooting being the last — and most serious act of lone wolf terrorism
since Unabomber Ted
Kaczynski. With
each incident, Hamm
examines how lone wolf terrorism has changed, including changes in weaponry, motives, victims, and whether the numbers of incidents have increased.

The case Hamm found most personally difficult to research is that of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She was shot in 2011 while speaking with constituents at La Toscana Village, a shopping center Hamm passed daily when he lived in the Tucson area. Giffords survived, but her injuries were so severe her rising star was snuffed out.

“Today, she can’t walk across the room.”

Her assailant, Jared Lee Loughner, then 22, bought a gun from a sporting goods store, with no questions asked.

“How does that happen?” Hamm said. “Why not make a bullet cost $1,000? You take any other product that has a liability to it and to curb the use of that product, the government raises the tax on it or the cost increases — things that are bad for you get priced out of the ceiling. Just the opposite has happened to bullets.”

Hamm is used to looking at things differently. He’s one of the few criminology researchers who actually meets with his subjects.

“You would be surprised at how many criminologists have never met an actual criminal. This is especially true for terrorism. An estimated 24,000 academic works on terrorism have been published since the 9/11 attacks on America, but only 1 percent of them have included direct contact with terrorists,” he said. “I’m pleased to say that my research is part of the 1 percent, and I’m grateful that ISU recognizes the principle that criminologists should never lose touch with the persons, faces, stories and lives we come across in the pursuit of theory.”

While Hamm’s terrorism research is top-of-mind for the media, governments and many citizens worldwide, it’s his work with Cuban prison rioters in the late 1980s that is most memorable for him.

In 1987, about 2,000 Cuban detainees protested an international treaty by seizing control of federal prisons in Oakdale, La., and Atlanta. It would become the longest and most destructive prison riot in U.S. history.

“After the smoke cleared, several hundred of the detainees were transferred to the federal penitentiary at Terre Haute,” Hamm said. “Assisted by civil rights attorneys, I trained and led a group of criminology students in representing the Cubans in parole board hearings before the then-called U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).”

Hamm and his students discovered most of the detainees had committed minor crimes or were wrongfully imprisoned.

“As a result of the hearings, roughly 100 detainees were released from prison and joined their families in Miami,” he said.

Hamm went on to publish “The Abandoned Ones: The Imprisonment and Uprising of the Mariel Boat People” in 1995.

“The experience had everything a humanist scholar could hope for: a compelling story, a teachable moment about human rights, extraordinary sacrifices and, in the end, the good guys won,” he said. “The Cubans may have been abandoned by power elites in Havana and Washington, but they were redeemed by criminology students of ISU. I am proud of what we accomplished together.”

After graduating with an education degree from Indiana University in 1971, Hamm worked as a teacher and administrator at juvenile and adult corrections facilities.

His work in prisons helped inform his terrorism research, as failing prisons — where there’s overcrowding and mistreatment of prisoners — leads to radicalism that could spawn terrorist attacks.

“Prison management, prison rights, prison subcultures, prison riots were something I always did,” Hamm said. “When I started doing the terrorism research, I found the best place was to go to the prisons. It was pretty seamless. I see it as hand-in-glove stuff.”

In 1979, Hamm earned a Master of Education from the University of Arizona. In 1985, he earned a doctorate in public administration from Arizona State University and joined Indiana State’s criminology department.

“Within Holmstedt Hall, there’s a community there. There’s a sense of warmth. at has a lot to do with the fact that none of the professors are too busy to talk to you — and often look forward to talking with students,” he said. “There’s no pretension there. We’re not Yale, nor do we want to be.”

In 2009, he became a faculty member of the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Security Training for Anti-Terrorism Prosecutors and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents. at same year, John Jay College of Criminal Justice selected him as a senior research fellow at their Center on Terrorism. In 2011, Hamm became a U.S. representative to the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute. He remains active in these roles.

“To me, it’s the story of the criminal, how the criminal is treated in the system, his own turning point in his life,” Hamm said. “A lot of times you and guys who are repentant — not always — but they’ve had some time to think about how screwed up their lives are.”

Hamm’s next project could be researching how climate change is fueling terrorism.

“It’d be interesting to know how many guys are in Syria as the result of fleeing areas where the climate has forced them out and they’ve become impoverished because the crops failed,” he said.

Parts of India and Africa are too hot for people to live there now, he says, and Yemen has a water crisis.

“It always happens in the poorest countries. The people who are least able to work for change legitimately. The illegitimate option is the only option,” he said.

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