Thursday, July 5, 2007

Root Causes of Terrorism

Ramesh Ponnuru over at The Corner points to this article by David Wessel on economist Alan Krueger's research which shows that poverty really and truly isn't a "root cause" of terrorism. Hey, these guys were doctors, and even under British socialized medicine, doctors ain't poor.

It turns out that the "poverty causes terrorism" meme is quite widespread, and also quite wrong:

"Each time we have one of these attacks and the backgrounds of the attackers are revealed, this should put to rest the myth that terrorists are attacking us because they are desperately poor," he says. "But this misconception doesn't die."

Less than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush said, "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror." A couple of months later, his wife, Laura, said, "Educated children are much more likely to embrace the values that defeat terror." Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn has argued, "The war on terrorism will not be won until we have come to grips with the problem of poverty, and thus the sources of discontent."

Sounds good, but turns out to be wrong. Krueger's research shows that terrorists are better-educated and wealthier than non-terrorists. Krueger's research shows that Palestinian suicide bombers are less likely to be from poor familes and more likely to have finished high school. And it also shows that terrorism rates aren't linked to worsening economic conditions.

So Krueger has exploded one theory. Does he have an alternative? He does, but I'm not sure it fits the facts, either:

Suppression of civil liberties and political rights, Mr. Krueger hypothesizes. "When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed," he says, "malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics."

It strikes me that Krueger is just replacing on pious hope with another. His theory makes sense when we're talking about guys from Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- you know, like the people who attacked the US on September 11. But how does it explain British Muslim terrorists? Britain is a political democracy, with free speech, open elections, and a full panoply of civil rights. British Muslims are no more rights-impoverished than they are economically impoverished. His new theory doesn't explain why British Muslims in particular seem willing to go out and kill random civilians. Or at least some of them do. (This point is made in some of the comments here.)

Let me propose one possible explanation. I don't have any actual evidence for these explanations, but hey, I'm a blogger in my PJs, so I don't need no stinkin' evidence.

I would call it the envy theory. These guys have a religion which tells them "you ought to be top dog." And what happens when they went to medical school? They studied advances made by people with names like Pasteur, Lister, Fleming and Salk. A quick glance at the list of Nobel Laureates in Medicine does not reveal even a single winner named Muhammad. Every single day these guys went to work, they were applying a set of techniques and principles developed by another culture. Every single day at work was a reminder of their own civilizational incompetence. Being technically-trained and well-educated just rubs in the message of how far behind West the Muslim World is.


Randolph said...

About three years back, I wrote:
"I believe it is accurate to say that the radical Islamic values that encourage suicide bombings have become popular because of the utter helplessness these people feel in the face of Western powers, which have at whim neglected and abused the Islamic peoples of the Middle East for three generations." And I still think that's true. There's plenty of places with more illustrious pasts than presents--Rome and Greece come to mind--but most of them aren't breeding martyrs to the faith these days.

cheerful iconoclast said...

So why aren't people from Haiti strapping on suicide vests and blowing themselves up? I mean, given the performance of their country, they have to feel a certain helplessness, and you can certainly argue if you want that they have been abused and neglected at various times.

I think you are suffering from the "blame America first" syndrome. Or, rather, the "blame the West" syndrome. It has to be OUR fault, somehow, rather than something rotten in Islam itself.

It isn't just that the Islamic world was once a center of civilization and culture, and now it's . . . not. Rather, Islam is an inherently Islamic Supremacist culture, so the fact that they aren't top dog rankles. The Greeks and Romans don't have a religion which tells them they ought to be ruling the world.

Randolph said...

Well, I suppose one has to include Russia/the USSR in "The West" to make the comment correct, but I'll grant the criticism. I still think the basic point is valid; if, say, the Pacific Northwest where I lived had been conquered by wealthy, powerful moderate Islamics we'd be literally up in arms, sermons would be preached about Crusades, and so on. If it went on for three generations, I think we'd produce some pretty drastic terrorists.

Islam is different from Christianity in that social issues are more directly at the fore in its core beliefs, whereas Christianity is more spiritual, though it has in its time governed. Couple of good links on this today: Kos on Ebadi on Operation Ajax (follow the link--all is explained) and Sara Robinson on the US's reputation and Islam as a branch of government.

BTW, I believe there are Haitian terrorists; they are just more active outside of the USA.