PULLING OUT THE ROOTS: The Roots of Terrorism

Monday, November 11, 2002

What are the root causes of terrorism and how should we respond to them? If the discontent and hatred that breed terrorism spring from economic, political, and cultural grievances, should we address those grievances? Or does acknowledgment of these types of causes of terrorism lend a dangerous legitimacy to terrorists themselves?

Recorded on Monday, November 11, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: terrorism, getting to the root of the problem.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.

[Music]

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the roots of terrorism. Shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, former Secretary of State George Shultz said on this program, I quote, "There are endless grievances in the world and if you say that in order to stop terrorism we've got to satisfy every grievance, it's impossible." And yet, in the middle of what may be a long war on terrorism, there are those who nevertheless ask, what are the root causes? If terrorism does indeed spring from economic, cultural or political grievances, shouldn't we seek to understand them? Or does seeking to understand such grievances lend the grievances and the terrorist acts that spring from them a certain unacceptable legitimacy?

Joining us, two guests: Paul Wilkinson is Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; Robert Wright is a contributing editor for The New Republic, Time Magazine, and Slate.

Title: Pulling Out the Roots

Peter Robinson: Two quotations. First, professor of history Frederick Smoler: "Careless assumptions about root causes must themselves be seen as among the most significant root causes of terrorism for they almost inevitably serve to make terrorism seem less outrageous." Second quotation, journalist Michael Kinsley: "This is an astonishingly philistine, know-nothing posture, blocking any deeper understanding of the terrorist's mentality and motives cannot be good for the war effort. If the essential truth about terrorism is that some people just hate the United States, the obvious next question is: why?" Are we right to probe for root causes of terrorism or is that very effort misguided? Robert?

Robert Wright: No, I think we're right. And I don't think to understand why it happens is to absolve the people who do it of blame.

Peter Robinson: Paul?

Paul Wilkinson: I agree with that entirely. I think it's very important to try and probe the underlying causes of violence, but of course that doesn't mean that even if we were to address legitimate causes of violence, that that would bring an end to terrorism because many of those who use terrorism are using it for reasons of their own hatred, revenge and so on, not for legitimate reasons.

Peter Robinson: I'll give you a few roots that I, as a layman have found, skimming around on the web, reading your work, reading your work. Root one: poverty. The entire Arab world is economically backward. Subtract exports of just two items, oil and natural gas, and you've got a large chunk of the planet with fewer exports than the Netherlands. And tens of millions of Arabs live in outright poverty. And, poverty is a breeding ground for terrorism. Right, Paul?

Paul Wilkinson: I don't agree that poverty is the most important factor. It may contribute, but I think the most important factor that emerges from research is the repressing of people's right to express their national identity or their religious identity, the feeling they have that they are deprived of their legitimate status.

Peter Robinson: So poverty in and of itself is nothing you'd worry about?

Robert Wright: Well, in a certain sense it's something I'd worry about. If you look at the people who were involved in 9/11, it's true that they were by and large not the poorest people in the countries that they came from. They wouldn't have been considered poor people. But they did tend to come from nations that were relatively poor and certainly nations that are not enmeshed in the global web of capitalism. Okay, like Mohammed Atta, for example--Egypt has a largely statist economy, very little economic opportunity, and in fact he had tried and failed to get a good job before he went to Germany, and he tried again from Germany and failed. So economic frustration, a kind of failure to earn status through conventional roots--legitimate roots, I think is a recurring theme if you look at who the terrorists are. So I think reducing the number of poor nations, you know, making these nations more globalized is a big part of the solution.

Peter Robinson: With each root cause that I'm going to put forward, I'll also put forward a corresponding remedy. And all of these things of course are in the air and being talked about. So for poverty, the remedy is obviously to make countries richer. Now this is a pertinent consideration right now because in discussions about Iraq, and discussions about our policy toward Israel and Palestine, one often hears, if we get regime change in Iraq, these are people with a long history of trading, merchant base, extending back through centuries, and there is the possibility of establishing in Iraq a market economy. Likewise, if the Palestinians could only be persuaded to overthrow Yasser Arafat again, historically, you have a people who understand trade, a merchant class. On the other hand, the thought could be, wait a minute this is just dreaming, you can't establish market economies in the Arab world like that. Are these useful thoughts to be having?

Paul Wilkinson: I think they are useful thoughts if you're looking in the very long term. But I think we have to appreciate that it does take a great deal of time to change cultural attitudes and habits and of course, if you impose, or attempt to impose change from outside, you create a resentment which in itself fuels violence and potentially terrorism. So one has to be very careful how this is approached, and I believe that the best channel for doing this is through multilateral programs of aid and assistance, through bilateral programs which in many cases have been very successful, rather than going with a kind of preconceived model, and saying right there you are going to conform to the western market model of economics and the western parliamentary model.

Robert Wright: Well, I agree that how exactly you do it is a difficult question, but as for the question of whether all of these people can become active participants in the global economy, I think the answer is yes. I think market economics taps something fundamental in human nature.

Peter Robinson: On to another theory about the root causes of terrorism: the clash of civilizations.

Title: You Can Call Me Al (Qaeda)

Peter Robinson: Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, much in the news these days, argues that the Arab world is seething at a historic indignity. For hundreds of years Islamic civilization was superior to that of the west, richer, more powerful, more refined levels of education, but that the Islamic world is now mired in backwardness. Quoting Lewis: "What we're witnessing is the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both." That is tremendously pertinent if true, because it makes everything else much harder. Why would they want to join our economy if they view us as infidels, if what we are seeing is a fundamental clash of civilizations? Paul?

Paul Wilkinson: I believe this theory of a clash of civilizations is potentially very dangerous and I don't accept that it is an accurate portrayal of the actual relations between Islamic countries and non-Islamic countries. There is a huge experience of toleration in countries where there were Islamic communities, Christian communities, Jewish communities even, if you go way back in the history of the Middle East and the Balkans. And I believe we should be remembering that pluralism, and remembering that there are lots of ways in which we can cooperate together. We don't have to think in terms of these massive forces in some kind of inevitable clash.

There are people like Bin Laden who would love to create that kind of impression that there is a great clash of course, in terms of religions as far as he's concerned--he'd love to portray this as a clash of Islam versus the enemies of Islam. And he wants to lead this holy war against the west. That is the most dangerous kind of propaganda. I don't believe it reflects the real experience of the vast majority of Muslims. And I don't believe that we should fuel that kind of …

Peter Robinson: To the extent that we ourselves begin thinking that way, we play into…

Paul Wilkinson: …we play into his hands, yes.

Robert Wright: I think clash of civilizations is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense. I do agree that there is tremendous resentment of America and much of it is in the Islamic world, but I don't think it's rooted in history in the deepest sense and represents some kind of inherent clash between Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilization. As Paul said, during the Middle Ages, Islamic civilization at certain points is really on the cutting edge of tolerance. And I would add that it isn't just the world's Muslims that are resentful--when you're the richest and most powerful nation in the world, resentment is a problem that you're going to have to deal with and you should try to comport yourself in a way that minimizes it, especially in an age when hatred of a nation can so readily translate into massively lethal attacks.

Peter Robinson: Explain what you mean by that--you're very good at that--you've written about that.

Robert Wright: Well, I think there are two aspects of this. There are two reasons that more and more we have to worry about people out there who hate America. I think one of them is widely understood and it's much discussed, and that is that thanks to technology, more and more weapons of mass destruction are going to be in the hands of relatively small groups of people. Even if we do the best job we can of policing these weapons--and I think we need to do more on that…

Peter Robinson: Because nuclear weapons are getting easier and easier and less and less expensive…

Robert Wright: …but contagious biological weapons worry me more because you can make them much less conspicuously…

Peter Robinson: In a bathtub effectively.

Robert Wright: Yeah, and in small portions, but certainly at universities and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies that right now aren't subject to the kind of regulation they need to be subject to. There's one other factor though, that I think is not so widely appreciated, which is that information technology is making it easier for these groups to mobilize, to recruit, so more and more a kind of hatred that at one point years ago might have remained amorphous, can through technological means kind of crystallize, mobilize itself, and wreak massive damage.

Peter Robinson: Next root cause: is it all our fault?

Title: King of the Mountain

Peter Robinson: Mary Beard of Cambridge University says, "The United States had it coming. That is of course what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price." In other words, it is our fault, and in particular, our fault for the way we've conducted policy in the Middle East. Do you buy that?

Paul Wilkinson: No, I don't. I think that that is a caricature of American policy and America's impact on the world. There is of course anti-American feeling in many countries in the world, not by any means restricted to the Middle East or to Muslim countries but I don't think that it would be fair to characterize American policy and the impact of America as having been totally negative--it's far, far from it. If you look at the way in which, for example, oil has brought some economic development to the oil rich countries of the Middle East, you'll see that American capital, American markets were absolutely central to that development. If you look at America's role as a backer of international agencies of development and technical expertise, you'll find that without American aid they wouldn't have even been able to perform their programs and if you look…

Peter Robinson: You have just won my nomination as our Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Let me put to you a mental experiment. Right up until 1973, the 1973 War, the primary ally of Israel was not the United States, but France. Now close your eyes and imagine that that had not changed, and that even today France was the primary ally of Israel, and we were not. Would the attack of September 11th have taken place in Paris instead of New York?

Paul Wilkinson: I don't think that one could come to that conclusion.

Peter Robinson: You don't?

Paul Wilkinson: No, because let's face it--Bin Laden and his propaganda initially wasn't concentrating on the Palestinian issue at all. It's only very much more recently that he's latched onto that as a means of trying to boost his popularity in the Arab world.

Peter Robinson: Is there absolutely nothing in it or a little bit in it?

Robert Wright: No, oh I think there's something in it. I think the Palestinian issue is one of many issues that whether or not they are a genuine grievance of Bin Laden's, do make it easy for Al Qaeda to find recruits, so I think it's an issue that we definitely need to pay more attention to than we've paid but…

Paul Wilkinson: I agree, Bob, that we need to pay more attention to it because it's still an intractable problem. Let's face it--the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could escalate into something much more serious--a major war in the Middle East…

Peter Robinson: Another…

Paul Wilkinson: …but the point I want to make, and this is very important Peter, I think, because it's so little understood or appreciated in many parts of the world, is that America has a tremendous reputation for having tried to bring people to the peace table--the Camp David talks, which were the first real breakthrough in bringing peace between a major Arab country and Israel, really were brokered by President Carter--really brought about by the efforts in American diplomacy. Right to the very last days of his presidency, President Clinton--much criticized for many aspects of his policy--was desperately trying to pull off an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. There's been no shortage of effort there, but the trouble is, and this is what I think Bob is getting at, that in the eyes of many of the Arab world, America is seen as a kind of biased player…

Robert Wright: We don't get sufficient credit in the Muslim world for the things we've done such as coming to the aid of the Bosnia Muslims, if, belatedly, but we did do more than anyone else did. And…

Paul Wilkinson: Kosovo.

Robert Wright: …you're right, and we have a public relations problem in that regard. At the same time I do think that your actual behavior matters and people do pay attention to it, and there are a lot of fronts on which we need to analyze our past behavior not in the sense that we were to blame for what happened on 9/11, but just to look for cases where if we had understood the implications, we might have done things a little differently.

Peter Robinson: Let me try a slightly different question. I've been asking root causes of terrorism, that is to say, what motivates the terrorists themselves. Let me ask a slightly different question: what motivates members of the Saudi Royal family to tolerate these people--indeed to fund them?

Paul Wilkinson: Well I think that we have to look at the intractability of the Israel/Palestinian conflict…

Pete Robinson: It's that…it's that…

Paul Wilkinson: …it is a major stumbling block, and that is why I think if the United States foreign policy could--and it would take time, I think--but if it could press Israel successfully to reverse its policy of settlements, and to take up a position in peace talks with Palestinians which gave the Palestinian moderates a genuine hope of a viable Palestinian state, I think that would be an enormous breakthrough. It wouldn't mean an end to terrorism, because let's face it…

Peter Robinson: …what I want to know is …

Paul Wilkinson: …terrorist groups…

Peter Robinson: …would that interest terrorists or would that impress people such as the Saudi Royal family?

Paul Wilkinson: …it would impress the moderate pragmatic forces of whom there are many in the Arab world, and it would reduce the reservoir of people willing to go and blow themselves up in order to destroy Israeli civilians.

Peter Robinson: On to our last root cause: they do it because it works.

Title: Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Peter Robinson: Alan Dershowitz: "Terrorism is often rationalized as a valid response to its root causes, mainly repression and desperation," we've talked a lot about that, "but the vast majority of repressed and desperate people do not resort to the willful targeting of vulnerable civilians. The real root cause of terrorism is that it is successful. Terrorists have consistently benefited from their terrorist acts. Terrorism will persist as long as it continues to work for those who use it, and as long as the international community rewards it as it has for the past 35 years." The remedy which follows from that is of course obvious, you don't worry so much about funding the poor--trying to help the poor, you punish them--you go after them and punish them.

Paul Wilkinson: I don't agree with Dershowitz' interpretation at all. I think it's entirely unhistorical.

Peter Robinson: Entirely, really?

Paul Wilkinson: Entirely unhistorical. Look, terrorism is a faulty weapon which more often misfires. It actually doesn't succeed in getting strategic change in most cases, after all what do they really want to do? Most terrorist movements in the last 40 years have wanted to gain control of a particular piece of territory and put it under control of a government with their own personnel. They haven't succeeded in doing that. The only period when they did succeed was in the anti-colonial struggles of the '40s and '50s and since then, they have a completely zero record…

Peter Robinson: …when European powers were looking for a way out…

Paul Wilkinson: …when they were looking for a way out there was no public commitment to staying there, and therefore the terrorist group were pushing at an open door. And in any case terrorism was combined with other tactics which were often just as important--but in the case of terrorism in the '70s and '80s, there isn't a single case of achieving that kind of breakthrough. And even in the case of this extremely lethal terrorism of Al Qaeda, look what has happened. When he came into office, President George Bush and his advisors--they were committed to really retreating from much of the rather global activist policy--that had been characteristic of previous presidents…

Peter Robinson: Right, those days are over.

Paul Wilkinson: …yeah, those days are not only over, but we have a complete reverse. We have a more globally activist interventionist United States than we even had at the height of the Cold War. And that--that has been achieved by terrorists who now find themselves having to move from pillar to post because they're being searched and hunted down by security forces…

Peter Robinson: Yes, but that's simply because George W. Bush is not making the mistake of wringing his hands and engaging in sleepless nights worrying about root causes. He's simply saying: what I know is that they've done something wrong and I'm going to go get them…

Paul Wilkinson: Yes, but other leaders…

Robert Wright: Well, that's a good short term response, but I do think we have the longer term to think about as well, and I'm not sure he's thinking about it. I certainly agree with Dershowitz, you have to punish terrorists when you can. Because I do think that especially these high-ranking kind of puppet masters like Bin Laden are amenable to deterrence. They don't want to die. He's not committing suicide himself even though he encourages it. At the same time, I think you have to be careful in how you punish them and how much you know, "collateral damage" you do, and in how it plays out on Al Jazeera, because…

Peter Robinson: Al Jazeera the Arab television…

Robert Wright: …being the Arab television station. I mean, I think that it's, for example, if you're going to use a predator drone to kill somebody in a car in Yemen and kill whoever happens to be riding with them as well, I think that may well be worth it, depending on how high ranking the terrorist is and so on, but we should pay attention to the potential long term downside of looking as if we're indifferent to the lives of Arabs or Muslims…

Paul Wilkinson: I agree with that, Bob, but I think if we go back to Dershowitz' thesis, I think he's right that we obviously need to punish terrorists for what after all are violations of basic human rights, but I think at the same time, the idea that terrorism works, this great simplification that he uses about the whole history of terrorism--it's dangerous--because in fact, it's totally, totally false, but…

Peter Robinson: Well, let's say, during the Clinton administration, when President Clinton was working so hard to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine, I'm not attempting to put words in Dershowitz' mouth, but I would take his thesis and argue as follows: it worked for quite a long time. That is to say if Osama Bin Laden's aims are to win recruits and support and funding, then by blowing a hole in the side of the U.S.S. Cole, by blowing up various American barracks and so forth, he had a run of about eight years, during the Clinton years, when it did indeed work. And we sent in a couple of cruise missiles to Afghanistan that landed sometime after Osama Bin Laden left, right?

Paul Wilkinson: But I think you have to distinguish, you see Peter, between those relatively short-lived tactical successes, if you like, in terrorist eyes…

Peter Robinson: By Bin Laden.

Paul Wilkinson: …yeah, and the strategic goal. Now look at the incredibly grandiose ideas that Bin Laden is trying to put forward: Pan-Islamist caliphate, that is a huge giant state for all Muslims, removing all the present Muslim and Arab governments--this is crazy…

Peter Robinson: That's just mad, isn't it?

Paul Wilkinson: …this is crazy stuff. But those are what he believes, those are what his minions are preaching and it is simply beyond belief that anybody really thinks you can achieve that. Now that is my point, is that we should be pointing out that terrorism is very often the weapon--not always--but very often the weapon of people who have totally unreal, bizarre objectives.

Peter Robinson: Final question: what are the prospects for winning the war on terrorism?

Title: It's Not Over 'Til It's Over

Peter Robinson: Engage in as much analysis as we will about root causes, devote as many resources to it as we will--diplomatic, financial, give them foreign aid, military resources--the question is this: is terrorism of the nature that we can actually defeat it, can we win a war on terrorism? Or have we simply crossed the threshold into a new world in which we can hope to contain it, keep tabs on this group, keep tabs on that group, but we are all going to be living a great deal more of the way Israelis have learned to live over the last ten and fifteen years? Paul?

Paul Wilkinson: I believe that it is possible for the United States in combination with as wide a group of countries as possible, by a sustained effort, to defeat the Al Qaeda network--which is the most dangerous challenge we face...

Peter Robinson: We can win, we can actually win?

Paul Wilkinson: …and let's face it, Al Qaeda's not only the most dangerous, it is also the group that has the many affiliated groups which are also capable of this kind of mass destruction and lethal terrorism. So I do believe at that level we can succeed. If you're looking for an end to terrorism in all its manifestations--you know, single-issue groups, nationalist groups, deeply entrenched groups that have been going for years--I don't think it's realistic for us to assume we can…

Peter Robinson: But defeating Al Qaeda's a pretty good precedent to establish.

Paul Wilkinson: …yeah, defeating Al Qaeda is the thing we should concentrate our resources now--our attention on--and if we are successful with that, along the way, we will have also created conditions which will suppress a great deal of other terrorism.

Peter Robinson: Bob?

Robert Wright: Well, I agree that we will never end terrorism as we know it. But I think we can certainly make a big dent in it, if we do some of these things with intelligence and especially with much more effective policing of biological weapons and so on. But I think if we want to live in the world we're accustomed to living in, that is to say, a world in which we have both security and liberty, we're going to have to understand that terrorism is ultimately a surface manifestation of hatred and discontent and thwarted economic aspirations and a whole lot of other things. And if we don't spend some considerable amount of our resources addressing the problem at that level, then I'm afraid the trends are moving in the wrong direction and we will in the future; have to choose between security and liberty.

Peter Robinson: Robert Wright, Paul Wilkinson, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson. For Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.