Terrorism did not start on September the 11th. Neither did evil acts. Ever since man was created, or the first ape evolved to a stage where it could be called a human, evil acts have been the norm, not the exception. As civilization has progressed, so have the atrocities that we are capable of. Terrorism is not a simple issue.
There are many definitions of terrorism, simple, legal, analytical etc. The 5th Islamic Conference defined it as: Terrorism is an act carried out to achieve an inhuman and corrupt (mufsid) objective, and involving threat to security of any kind, and violation of rights acknowledged by religion and mankind. This comes very close to the internationally accepted viewpoint on terrorism, and it would be pointless to keep on listing more definitions. In order to understand the phenomenon of terrorism, one must assess the divergent views of what exactly constitutes terrorism. Reaching a general consensus on the definition of terrorism has generated much debate in the social sciences. No one definition seems to satisfy the broad interpretation of what specifically is terrorism. Now when we cannot agree to exactly what is terrorism, it makes it that much harder to identify and isolate the roots of a particular act, and then lay down the blame there.
Since the September 11 attacks, two truths have been indisputable and universally reported. One is that the hijacker bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon were atrocities of a monumental and spectacular scale (and media coverage of that day’s events alone may have generated more words and graphic images than any other single event in recent history). A second truth is that the bombings were willful acts of terrorism, accepting the basic definition of terrorism as “the use of force or the threat of force against civilian populations to achieve political objectives.” And let us also recognize that “sponsorship of terrorism” means organizing, and/or underwriting and providing a “safe harbor” to state or non-state agents who terrorize.
What we need is subtlety of thought. We need to be able to make crucial distinctions, for instance between culpability and innocence, combatant and noncombatant, and the legitimate and illegitimate uses of force. The problem with terrorism is, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. While all of us may agree that if Osama Bin Laden was behind Sept 11th, then he qualifies as a terrorist, others may not.
The debate surrounding the events of September 11 is being clouded by sloppy logic and analysis in the haste to say something — anything – that makes sense of the situation. OBL hates America, and as demonstrated by September the 11th, won’t stop at anything to attack the United States.
One issue that has become clouded is whether it’s reasonable to talk about terrorism’s “root causes.” Many in the conservative media in the West attack any attempts to analyze root causes, labeling those who do any such thing as unpatriotic, na�ve fools. These are the softer judgments; many are not fit to print. Some commentators declare that any discussion of root causes legitimizes terrorism by making excuses for it. Others suggest that people who want to examine root causes are arguing, essentially, that we shouldn’t take punitive action because it won’t work; we should act on the root causes instead.
Thomas Homer-Dixon in the Toronto Globe takes the very reasonable view that while we analyze the root causes we should also be going after the terrorists. This is a view that I fully agree with. When a person commits a crime, we do not go into his reasons for it, instead we arrest him, and then later on at the trial taking the reasons into consideration sentence him to an appropriate punishment.
Ever since the terrorist strikes of September 11th against the United States, some have argued that we need to address the “root causes” of terrorism instead of–or, at least, in addition to–retaliating against the individuals and groups responsible. This is an attractive argument, since long-term success in the campaign requires the prevention of future terrorism. The magnitude of the catastrophic loss of innocent lives in the recent terrorist attacks should be reason enough to look deeply at their origins.
We can explain why a person committed a crime — say, a murder — by pointing to the factors that caused the person to do it. We may even trace these factors far back into the person’s history — to their upbringing, their childhood economic circumstances and the like. But this rarely keeps us from holding the person morally responsible for the crime. We can, in other words, examine and acknowledge the root causes of the person’s behavior, without letting them off the moral hook. The two issues — of explanation and responsibility — are distinct.
One would think this is all pretty obvious. So why do some commentators object so vociferously to any discussion of terrorism’s root causes? I suspect it’s because they don’t like where this discussion may lead.
Causal reasoning is very difficult, and the human mind is particularly prone to jumping to causal conclusions based on minimal evidence. Human superstition is a lengthy record of false causal beliefs. This is why the scientific study of etiology requires experiments carefully controlled to rule out confounding factors; for instance, the use of control and experimental groups in the study of disease causation. Since controlled experiments are unfortunately not available in the study of social phenomena such as terrorism, we must treat any claims about the causes of terrorism with caution. Especially deserving of skepticism are claims about root, as opposed to proximate, causes. In other words, we may be able to figure out who committed a terrorist attack, but why they did so is a far more difficult question.
Taking into consideration this difficulty, we have to realize that when someone tries to justify what he/she thinks to be the reasons for a certain terrorist act, they might be wrong. Poverty is often labeled to be a major motivation which drives people to these extremes, yet Osama Bin Laden is a very rich man. Some of the hijackers came from well to do families, in fact, none of them had a very poor background from what we know about them so far. The hypothesis is that poverty helps create an environment where terrorism seems to some like a good or necessary idea, a climate that provides a larger pool of possible recruits and a climate that may lead to sympathy for terrorists, in other words a climate where terrorism is more likely. Osama bin Laden’s wealth does not make the hypothesis implausible. It is the general poverty of Muslim nations that is being offered as a possible “root cause of terrorism.” These nations (except for ones with significant oil exports) are indeed poor.
To take into consideration the other side, namely the terrorists themselves, their explanations are very straightforward. Speaking from their point of view, you’ve heard it all: to overthrow the oppressive and brutal and corrupt regimes of the Arab-Islamic world in general, to drive out the infidels, the foreigners who’ve invaded Muslim lands, and to protect Muslims everywhere from attack. Osama Bin Laden in numerous videos listed these points as the primary reason for his attacks on Americans wherever he can get at them. His points are valid, for after all, the government of Saudi Arabia is corrupt, non democratic and women can’t drive let alone vote. Voices against the government are quickly repressed. In most places we would applaud those who fight against such a government. The United States supports these corrupt regimes, its undermining any steps towards democracy, it’s, in fact, blocking any independent economic development. Saudi Arabia is very much under US control, and by logical reasoning, those wishing to change its government will have to attack those who support it. Here we have a nice simple explanation for attacking the US. If you love Democracy, then you must fight those against it, and ironically the world’s most Democratic country is also one of the staunchest supporters of non democratic regimes around the world. Simplicity gets us nowhere though. This argument justifying the US as a legitimate target has been howled down in the US by all and sundry. The state has legitimate power only so long as it serves the people it governs. Saudi Arabia has crossed that line, according to Osama Bin Laden, and he thinks it is the US which has urged it to do so.
There remains the question of whether and to what extent the US may have brought terrorist attacks on itself by its own misguided policies. The policies in question, if we go by the remarks of Mr. Bin Laden himself, are the keeping of US troops in Saudi Arabia and US support for Israel. As regards the former, one can hardly see what the problem is, especially since US forces are there at the invitation and pleasure of the Saudis. If Mr. Bin Laden wants the US forces gone then he only has to persuade the Saudis to withdraw the invitation. Why has he not done that or why has he not taken his complaint, and his terrorism, to Saudi Arabia? Actually Mr. Bin Laden wants the US forces gone because they are infidels in the land of the Prophet. But why do the Saudis, who are the protectors of that land and of the holy places of Islam, not agree with him? Is Mr. Bin Laden the only true interpreter of what is and is not tolerable to Islam? Must all Muslims bow to Mr. Bin Laden’s authority or else face his terrorist wrath? It is beginning to look as if Mr. Bin Laden is more your typical tyrant than your typical Muslim. At all events we may dismiss this complaint of his as frivolous. The presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia is not unjust and not un-Islamic, whatever Mr. Bin Laden may say.
Talking about Israel, that poses a bigger problem. The US has brought the two parties together for innumerable peace talks, some like Camp David bringing forth real progress. Yet at the same time it has armed Israel to the hilt, to the point where it can easily take on and defeat the entire Arab world, as estimated by Jane’s Military Intelligence.
The UN Environment Chief, Klaus Toepfer neatly sums up what seems to me to be the generally accepted view about September the 11th.
“We must be determined and united in our efforts to bring those responsible to justice,” Toepfer said. “What happened in the United States was a crime against humanity, an act of horrendous violence against all races and creeds. But we must also expose the forces that create poverty, intolerance, hatred and environmental degradation that can lead to an unstable world.”
At a press conference in Almaty, Toepfer said, “I am not suggesting for a moment that poverty and environmental degradation are factors on their own. Intolerance also has its role. But it can fan the flames of hate and ignite a belief that terrorism is the only solution to a community’s or nation’s ills.”
There are three ways to justify terrorists’ violent actions. The first is the main reason why they decide to be terrorists, to pressure governments to obtain their claims. They perceive the second one, publicity, as a necessary act to obtain the first one. Terrorists need publicity to express and spread their demands. Because they feel that talks and pacifist ways are useless, terrorists express their demands with dramatic violence to gain everyone’s attention. In that way they manipulate the media and spread their message. The third one is their necessity to survive. It consist in obtain funds to defray their expenditures. That is why they resort to violent actions as kidnappings, extortion, hijacks and bank raids.
Words can be twisted to suit anything and everything. Hitler justified the Holocaust because he needed to maintain the purity of the Aryan race, but the Holocaust is made no less horrible by this justification. Let it be, if you will, that the terrorists had grievances, even legitimate grievances, against the US. The goal of the totalitarian terrorist is not to eliminate injustice, but to eliminate opposition. One man’s terrorist, therefore, isn’t another man’s freedom fighter. So arguments about “root causes” are irrelevant. These grievances could never justify their deeds. An evil deed can never be justified. An evil deed is precisely that, an evil deed. No grievance or pretext, however strong, can ever make it not to be an evil deed. Basic Humanity tells me that as a member of the human race I cannot condone acts of violence on innocents for any reason.
We must individually and collectively refuse to adopt the terrorists’ devaluing of human life. If we do not, and we yield to the quiet rage of hatred that their vile deeds have generated in most of us; then our desire to destroy them at all costs allies us more with the forces of evil than of good. We have seen the enemy; do not allow it to become us.