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Friday, July 30, 2004

Battle Causes of Terrorism - Iron Blogger Democrat - Second Rebuttal

First off, let me apologize for, at least in the Challenger's mind, seeming to "abandon" my original position that it's a sense of desperation within an individual that leads to a life of terror. Serves me right, I guess, for agreeing with the Challenger's assertion that "desperation is not enough." I thought I made it clear that I see the Challenger and me as being on the same side of the fence--just at different places along the fence.

The Challenger claims his section of fence in his Second Rebuttal: "I am afraid the only way we can accurately discuss this is by talking about the group, and its ideology." The problem with the Challenger's position here is that an ideology without recruits is just so much hot air. We can spend all day talking about what ideology drives everyone from ETA to the World Church of the Creator to the unfortunately-acronymed MILF. But doing so gets us no closer to understanding what drives individuals to those groups in the first place.

And that's the section of fence I'm claiming for myself.

The Challenger, giving up on his initial attempts at declaring that my part of the fence didn't need to be considered, opens his Second Rebuttal with a very cute tactic: He brings up just about the worst thing one can say about Islam (citing "Arabist" Dr. Kobrin--and if you read his link, you might think the better epithet would be "racist") while claiming that he "would not go that far." In other words, "Some people say Arabs are misogynist, masochistic savages--but not me!" Sorry, Challenger, that dog won't hunt here at the Iron Blog, and I personally resent your implication that I am making a similar argument.

After that, the Challenger lists some other plausible motivations for terror: love of power, desire for status, companionship, even revenge. The trouble, of course, is that all of these can be satisfied through other means, except when those other means are unavailable. Sometimes, even when other paths to power, status, wealth, comaraderie, even revenge are available, people choose the terrorist ideology instead. My contention all along has been that those most likely to choose the path of terror either don't have other means to fulfill their needs and desires (i.e., alleviate their desperation), or that their desperation makes them easy to recruit for unlawful paths.

Besides, undermining the list the Challenger provides is actually pretty easy. For example, someone who blows herself up on a bus is unlikely to be seeking power. The FARC are certainly after "status they could not get anywhere else," since they're desperate for some of that communist redistribution of wealth. The "comradeship afforded to [terrorists] by no one else" describes exactly the whole in-group/ out-group dynamic I brought to the table. As for revenge, in this country we typically have legal remedies available for those who have been wronged (at least until tort reform passes); if you're desperate for revenge and there's no legal system to help you where you are, you don't need to join a terror network to kill for revenge.

Beyond that, well, we all desire all of those things he named. Who wouldn't like a little more status, better friends, or redress of wrongs done to us? There's got to be something different about those who would choose to kill to get those things.

There's also something different about those who don't kill but still use terrorist networks for power and personal gain. Osama bin Laden, perhaps the most powerful terrorist in the world, has never personally carried out any acts of terror, near as we can tell (discounting any fighting he may have done in the mujahadeen). I am not defending the man, of course--just questioning whether in his position he's less a terrorist and more the "charismatic leader" I spoke of in my First Rebuttal. We see those same kinds of "charismatic leaders" abusing legal structures all around the world for power and their own personal gain as well (this is an election year!); this is nothing exclusive to terrorism.

Speaking of bin Laden, I never said (though I can see how it could be inferred) that the United States ever "directly supported" him. Whether or not we gave him money or arms, we certainly created conditions that allowed him to parlay family connections into leadership of a loose terror network.

Which is what al Qaeda is, by the way. Osama bin Laden doesn't head some monolithic far-reaching empire at all. al Qaeda isn't even al Qaeda's name for itself, just a name "coined by the United States government based on the name of a computer file of bin Laden's that listed the names of contacts he had made in Afghanistan, which talks about the organization as the 'Qaida-al-Jihad'--the base of the jihad." And according to the Cragin and Daly Rand Study (.pdf link) the Challenger and I have both cited,
while Osama bin Laden apparently remains al Qaeda's ideological and inspirational leader, the organization's affiliated groups still rely on their various leaders to maintain a unity within al Qaeda. Many of the terrorist groups allegedly affiliated with al Qaeda [. . .] recruit members and conduct attacks without oversight from al Qaeda. (33)
al Qaeda as it exists now is not interested in ruling anything. They will never "take the reins of a nation-state," as the Challenger suggests, as the goal of the affiliated groups is to bring back the Caliphate, not to be the Caliphate. bin Laden had his chance to take political power when he returned to Afghanistan in 1996 as the Taliban warlords consolidated power, but he (and his Afghani fighters) chose instead to remain outside the political realm and engage Western targets through terrorism.

I've tried to present not just the theory behind why terrorist groups--like hate groups and gangs--can recruit people to engage in these terrorist acts, but also examples of the sorts of people who have done such a thing, and they have all faced some desperate situation. The Challenger does agree with me here; despite the protestations in his last post, I distinctly recall reading, "I am not willing to discount this theory outright because there is no doubt that desperation is a motivation for someone to join a terrorist group." Perhaps in my zeal for my own point of view I read too much enthusiasm into the Challenger's words there, but he has not provided any other substantive explanation for why terrorists opt for that path instead of some gentler path that answers the "who the hell am I?" question.

And while The Challenger's right that we may never know the exact combination of decisions that lead a person to commit a terrorist act, I've tried to show that these people all have this one thing--desperation, a lack of better choices for fulfilling their needs--in common. Do we know exactly what it was that drove Kamal Derwish to recruit for bin Laden? No, but the desperate straits he found himself in before signing up certainly provide a clue. How about that formerly sweet American boy who wound up a Taliban? Like most kids coming out of a madrassa, John Walker Lindh didn't see any choice but to fight as he had been instructed.

Again, I do not want to leave the impression that I don't think ideology is an important thing, but (forgive me, Vince Lombardi) it is not the only thing. The desperation, the confusion, the pre-programming from a terrorist-funded school--all of these are just as important to consider. And we must consider this all carefully, for whatever we decide is the "cause" of terrorism, that informs our responses, our attempts to prevent it.

I don't really like any of the answers it seems like we're hinting at; the Challenger picks up my desperation thread and follows it to "if we could just fix this social problem, or economic problem, or psychological condition, we could eliminate terrorists," a solution he suggests won't work. I concur; following my answer to the extreme will lead to nanny-stateism, a dangerous neo-colonialism. And we're seeing now, 50 or 100 years after the fact, the deadly results of our first attempts at colonialism:
In many colonial situations, the European colonial powers favored specific minority groups as part of the divide and conquer strategy. They used these favored minorities as surrogates to help maintain order and dominance over much larger majority populations. When the colonists withdrew after World War I and World War II, little or nothing was done to establish more democratic governing systems, or to redress the relative disadvantages that had been created.

In other cases, the ruling systems, monarchies or regimes that were left in power continued to exploit out-groups for their own benefit, or failed to move their countries forward in the global marketplace. In either case, out-groups developed heightened expectations for their future but remained frustrated at their inability to change their disadvantaged situation.
This is boiling over now in Indonesia, the Philippines, the Indian sub-continent, northern Africa, South America, and, yes, the Middle East. I fear that too many attempts to "free the people from brutal regimes," or even to try to quell everyone's desperation, would be just bad, bad voodoo.

On the other hand, following the Challenger's notion that terrorism is all about ideology, we also end up somewhere dangerous--an Orwellian world of thoughtcrime where we punish people preemptively for what they believe, not what they do. One of the most fundamental tenets of our lives as Americans is that the answer to bad speech (and, by extension, bad ideology) is not to suppress it, outlaw it, or ignore it; no, the answer to bad speech is good speech, more of it and louder than the bad speech. I can't imagine living in a world where holding a belief is all it takes to be branded as a terrorist.

That's the world of the Challenger.

Respectfully submitted,
Jay Bullock, Iron Blogger Democrat
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