Former CIA agent discusses fear and religion at Berkeley Forum event

Vivian Roan/Staff

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Author and former CIA agent Robert Baer led a discussion centered around the politics of faith and fear at a Berkeley Forum event Tuesday night.

Baer, who worked for the CIA for 21 years, said he was surprised that he landed the job in the first place. Prior to working for the CIA, Baer studied Mandarin in Berkeley.

Baer is currently a commentator for CNN and has contributed to several other journals, with much of his work focusing on the Middle East. Baer was portrayed by George Clooney in the award-winning movie “Syriana” and has roles in two television shows on the History Channel — “Hunting Hitler” and “JFK Declassified: Tracking Oswald.” Baer has also written four New York Times best-sellers.

During the forum, Baer recalled the “sophisticated” crowds he met in Lebanon and Iraq in the ’80s and ’90s. According to Baer, these societies have transitioned from secularism to religious fanaticism in the past decades in what he described as “hard times, simple solutions.”

“How does society turn at 180 degrees? These societies turn to belief as a form of sedition,” Baer said.

During the Q&A portion of the event, Baer revealed his predictions about the connections between environmental damage, collapsing civilizations and terrorism. He predicted that fear politics will be used more frequently as a result of the shifts that climate change might cause, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

Baer added that the conflict between fact and belief can be seen in the current politics of fear in the United States.

Campus student Anindit Gopalakrishnan, who attended the event, said he would have liked to hear Baer elaborate on the fear of impoverishment that people exhibit, a topic that was touched on during the event. He added that he wished the presentation had been more structured.

Baer also discussed UC Berkeley’s role in the politics of fear.

“Students at Berkeley are part of an elite that leads by facts and science,” Baer said. “We’re seeing this politics of fear in America right now — this sense of premonition that everything is going downhill.”

Baer himself has spoken at a variety of institutions, including conservative institutions.

“I speak anywhere. I know what I know,” Baer said. “I will speak at conservative audiences and not really have to tailor the conversation.”

Berkeley Forum event coordinator Sydney Yoon said the organization strives to choose a diverse line of speakers every year.

“(Baer’s) background as a CIA agent means he has been all over the world and can bring a very worldly take on what is going on in the Middle East to the table,” Yoon said.

Contact Isabella Sabri at [email protected].