John Quiggin, with whom I have differed in the past over his assertion that the United Kingdom should shut down its intelligence community, writes
I just received an email drawing the (far from original) comparison between terrorism and cancer. It struck me that, to make this metaphor exact we’d need
- attacks on cancer researchers for seeking to ‘understand’ cancer
- even more attacks on anyone trying to find ‘root causes’ for cancer in the environment, such as exposure to tobacco smoke
Vee pithy. Vee, vee
pithy. And in fairness it's sometimes true. But mostly not.
More accurately, you will get some lumpen idiots within certain sections of the commentariat who will live up to this sort of stereotype. However, it's a lot more complicated than that.
The problem with "understanding" and "root causes" is not that we shouldn't be trying to understand or that we shouldn't attempt to address root causes insofar as is a) practical and b) not an unreasonable abdication of our values. It is the fact that most of the people outside the academic/policy community who talk about "understanding" and "root causes" don't actually know what these are.
There's a lot of literature out there. Terrorism experts have spent a substantial amount of time constructing empirically based studies looking into terrorist motivation, behaviour and recruiting patterns, both in general and in terms of terror-group specific case studies. The literature is not monolithic and areas of disagreement exist between the experts, who often come from varying disciplines and areas of expertise.
The problem is that the people who talk loudest about root causes and understanding within the public forum - the Cherie Blairs, Jenny Tonges, Guardian Opinion section contributors, Chomsky/Said cultists and Question Time audiences of this world - generally show no sign whatsoever of having read, let alone seriously engaged with, this literature. Instead we are too often treated to blissful assertions regarding the roles of poverty, global inequality, Western arrogance etc etc.
This is not to say these don't play a role. Some do and some don't* and indeed, as can be seen from individual group case studies, actually motivatory (is that a word?) factors can vary from terror group to terror group. But the reason so many root cause-wallahs take a lashing is not (mostly) because of an inherent closed-mindedness but because their root cause explanations are often based on nothing more solid than taking the prejudices they harboured pre-9/11 and dumping them down as a template for what causes a sort of catch all "desparation" that we are supposed to believe causes terrorism. As far as I am aware, Jerrold Post, Marc Sagemen, Walter Laqueur, Max Horgan, Walter Reich, David Rapoport, Martha Crenshaw and company actually don't have to dedicate much of their time to fending off ad hom
attacks for having carried out the work they've done, nor does thier progression up the ladder within the security community seem to have been obviously impeded.
Dr Quiggin thinks that what we see today is the equivalent of cancer researchers being attacked for seeking to understand cancer. In fact what we more often see is the equivalent of Tom Cruise being attacked for arguing that people should put their faith in L.Ron Hubbard mystic happy clappy bullshit as treatment for post-natal depression rather than anti-depressants.
*The role of poverty, for example, is an interesting and complicated one and its impact can range from near non-existant to fairly important depending upon which group is being discussed. In the case of al Qaeda the role is plays either as a motivator or as a "recruiting sergeant" is, at most, minimal. In the case of Palestinian terrorism there is empirical evidence that it can make certain terror candidates, most notably potential candidates for suicide bomber recruitment, riper pickings for the higher-ups within the terror networks.** However, to claim that poverty is a catch all "root cause" of terrorism (as an annoying large number of people do) is simply not supported by the empirical evidence.
**Especially interesting is the case of female suicide bombers recruited by Hamas. What has certainly been the case in a number of documented instances is that impoverished Palestinian women who have exhibited no overt sign of religious radicalisation, but who have young children, have been approached by Hamas officers who have induced them to suicide murder on the committment that their children will receive a handsome, life-changing financial annuity in exchange for the "sacrifice". The sheer cynicism and moral cowardice of the terrorist recruiters deserves to be given greater exposure in the Western press.