Thursday, July 07, 2005

The roots of terrorism

In light of today's London bombings (and those prior in Madrid, and New York, and Beirut, and Belfast, and Oklahoma City, and London again, and Omagh, and Moscow, on and on in the sad litany):

In contrast to what national governments might claim, terrorism is often an effective, if amoral, political tool, for logical reasons: it uses minimal resources, picks its points of confrontation, imposes massive losses on the target at (usually) minimal costs to the perpetrators, and historically has proven to be deadly effective at sapping the target's will to fight.

Terrorism cannot be stamped out by military action. Police work, international cooperation, covert surveillance, bribes and turncoats can all help, but they also cannot stamp it out. Terrorism can only be resisted, in a lasting fashion, by addressing the environments in which it breeds.

Terrorism is opportunist: it cannot flourish in the absence of a social, economic, and rhetorical climate that allows it to grow. It takes root in conditions of economic despair: when the poor have no hope, some will become desperate. And some percentage of those will be receptive to the murderous rhetoric of the gangsters who understand how to motivate and direct such human targets.

Terrorism exploits desperation:

If for example you're sixteen years old, without work, have repeatedly been roughed up by foreign soldiers who don't speak or language and haven't been properly trained, with friends and relations killed by opponents or random violence, have been brainwashed in madrasas or within the family, are living in a war zone, and if the only heroes in your neighborhood are the local gang-bangers, why wouldn't you be receptive to rhetoric that glorifies romantic violence?

Terrorism is always about economics: about making the price to opponents too high. Al Qaeda speaks about "bleeding the West into bankruptcy," the Viet Cong spoke about "sapping the will to fight."

It's also often about economic gain for the terrorists themselves. This is why terrorism is sometimes supported by larger or more "legitimate" organizations or states: because it can be economically profitable, if only because it's a way to make war on the cheap. The US employed the mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union because it kept the cost of that conflict, in both dollars and US lives, very low. US and British corporations sold arms to the Nazis for a very long time before their respective governments finally decided the possible future costs outweighted the current profits. Wealthy Southerners encouraged dumb shit-kickers to violently oppose integration in order to keep their own hands clean. The conflict in Northern Ireland continues because the gangsters who perpetuate it can use others to continually destabilize the situation in order to profit from guns, drugs, and extortion.

Poverty breeds violence. Economic disparity across class, race, ethnic, religious, or national boundaries breeds resentment and provides easy targets for terrorist rhetoric. A rhetoric of "shock and awe" will not heal these resentments: it only feeds them.

The poor are not stupid. It's a terrible outgrowth of the Judeo-Christian (and particularly Protestant) cosmology that poverty is presumed to be divinely-intended. Thus the poor are poor "because they deserve it," and, by implication, because they're stupid. This is a convenient presumption: it means that poverty--and its repair--is the poor's own responsibility, not that of the world community. But it is false. The roots of poverty, and thus of terrorism, are a product of global economic interdependence

Policy-makers in the west, and especially in the US executive branch, have consistently and historically underestimated, misunderstood, or blithely ignored the actual motives behind foreign populations' behaviors and actions: in Sudan, in Gaza, in Northern Ireland, in the Civil Rights Era American South, in Lebanon, in Cuba. It has always been easier to whip up domestic support for overseas conflict by oversimplifying, concealing, or lying about the other side's legitimate complaints. It's also usually been lucrative.

The corporate executives who make international economic decisions and the politicians who they purchase to execute those decisions are the children, grand-children, and proponents of privilege. They do not know what poverty feels like, even though they are often wealthy as a result of it. Rather than understand, recognize, or admit the global and economic bases for poverty, and working to alleviate them, it is thus easier and far more profitable for national governments to claim that terrorists are "fanatics" who "hate our liberty."

But the poor are often sophisticated observers of their own economic conditions. They often do know why they're poor. They often do blame "us", or at least our governments. They don't hate our liberty: they may very well hate the greed, selfishness, opportunism, or wilful ignorance of our governments.

And so the resentment the poor might feel toward those who are richer is often based in an accurate analysis--and thus is responsive to the violent rhetoric of terrorists.

If we want terrorism to end, we must all work to eradicate the conditions of poverty which are the roots of receptivity to terrorist rhetoric. And we can do this, by relentlessly pushing our national governments to forgive debt, subsidize anti-epidemic drugs, invest in third-world infrastructures, develop economical and appropriate subsistence farming techniques, work to limit globalization's impact on the poor, use sanctions against repressive regimes, promote education across the globe, lower our consumption of fossil fuels and the world's resources, educate ourselves about other cultures, use our damned passports.

We are all in this together. We can defeat terrorism only by choking it off at the roots.


See also Patrick Doherty's thoughtful, impassioned response to the London bombings.

Note that PD surmises that the bombing's goals may well have included shifting the G-8 topics away from debt relief, AIDS, and global warming and back to terrorism. If this is allowed to happen, then Al Qaeda is once again controlling the agenda, and those crucial other topics will once again be ignored, thus reinforcing the cycle of poverty, anger, and terror.

As of 3:02pm CDT, this is precisely what has happened. George Bush is probably delighted: more justification for his "war on terror," the one area in which some Americans still believe he's doing a competent job; no awkward questions about the Kyoto agreement, the non-existent WMD's, or why the US contribution to African debt relief is so despicably small.

Addenda July 11: in re/ paragraph above, this is precisely what Bush has done.


Me said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Me said...

Excellent post. I have linked to it at

Keep it up.

The deleted post was because I put the wrong link in.

All the best,