Clear and Present Danger

Author Donna Starr-Deelen


Donna Starr-Deelen ’87 (JD) was dropping off her daughter at a suburban Washington, D.C., school bus stop when the world as she knew it vanished. Moments earlier, there had been little reason to believe a late-summer morning in the mid-Atlantic could be less idyllic.

“It was a beautiful day,” she remembers. Until the planes started hitting. Blue skies gave way to billowing smoke and the acrid stench of jet fuel and death. Terrorists were in the process of ushering in a chilling new calculus for American geopolitics.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, did more than just strike fear in Americans. Starr-Deelen’s mind started churning with a book idea. “I, like everybody else, was shocked at what happened. Many people went into exploring the causes of terrorism,” she says. “But for me, the most salient point was, ‘how does a democracy such as the United States respond to an act of terrorism like Sept. 11?’”

Further, how much power should a president be able to wield in response? Those are questions that Starr-Deelen tries to answer in her new book, Presidential Policies on Terrorism: From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). In it, Starr-Deelen, an international law consultant based in Kensington, Md., quotes several policy leaders and pundits, including Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Paul Pillar, a former national intelligence officer for the CIA.

“When I get to the Obama administration, because it’s ongoing, I try to present different alternatives and allow an informed reader to make their own judgments,” she says. “A lot of empirical evidence suggests that overemphasizing the use of force as a military does not actually lessen international terrorism.”

Starr-Deelen poses several other possible options, including improving intelligence gathering and fostering more law enforcement cooperation. The book is targeted to an academic audience, but also to “anybody who is really interested in the issue of American responses to international terrorism,” she says.

The book is based on a doctoral thesis she completed at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, and it highlights several acts of terrorism that affected Americans and American interests: the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; and the 1998 American embassy bombings in Africa, to name a few.

Developing policies and interventions around such events are rarely clear-cut exercises.

“When you live in a democracy, we have to respect the rule of law,” Starr-Deelen says. “We have principles and our freedom to maneuver is a little bit less. It’s very difficult to respond using overwhelming force. We don’t want to cause undue collateral damage, and we’re not just going to round up everybody that we dislike and throw them in prison for 10 years.“

Starr-Deelen was able to cultivate her longtime interest in world affairs while at the University of San Diego. She enrolled at the university because she could earn a dual degree in law and international relations. She also took part in the Jessup International Law Moot Court competition, which simulates a fictional dispute between countries before the International Court of Justice (Starr-Deelen’s team won best brief in the 1987 Pacific regional competition).

For now, terrorism is a fact of life, Starr-Deelen says. Her book, she hopes, will lend important perspectives to the conversation.

“Sadly, I think we’ll continue to be the No. 1 target for a lot of international terrorists,” she says. “It’s important to stay resilient and calm.”