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Root causes of terrorism

Robert A. Hinde

30 January 2002

Pugwash members will welcome Thomas Homer-Dixon's insistence (Pugwash Newsletter, December 2001) that no effort should be spared to find the "root causes" of the September 11th outrage. The whole world felt the horror of what happened. Those responsible should be brought to justice, and those with similar intentions should be rooted out wherever they may be hiding.

But not all will feel that Homer-Dixon's analysis of the root causes is adequate. Overpopulation, poverty and political dislocation are no doubt important background factors for the genesis of terrorism. And Homer-Dixon is absolutely right when he writes that "As the disparities of wealth and opportunity on our planet widen, this problem is certain to get worse." But there are two poles to a disparity, and poverty and powerlessness is only one. Many commentators in the USA seem to miss the symbolism of the targets that were successfully attacked; the World Trade Centre and the centre of the USA's military might. The third intended target may well have had political significance. It is essential to face the three-fold image that the USA presents to the world.

First, over-consumption and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of those less fortunate. Estimates vary, but all agree that the consumption of food and energy per head in the USA is greater than in any other country, and many times greater than in the poorer countries. Second, power. The USA has used its power to impose its political will on countries all over the world. Sometimes this has involved overt military action or the provision of military hardware. Sometimes the action has been covert, organized by the CIA. Sometimes it has been economic, as with the sanctions imposed on Cuba. In most cases the action has been unilateral. The third issue concerns the USA's perceived intentions. When the US Space Command argues that, because "globalisation of the world economy will continue, with a widening between haves and have-nots," therefore the Space Command must dominate "the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment," and when the Rumsfeld Commission reports that "In the coming period, the US will conduct operations to, from, in and through space in support of its national interests both on earth and in space," is it surprising that many will stand aghast? And the political bases for the perception of the USA's hegemony do not stop there. By its failure to support international agreements devised for global good because they infringed its national interests, it is seen as sinking further into isolationism.

One could, of course, discuss how far these perceptions are justified. Other countries, including the UK, are nearly as bad. And maybe the perceptions are engendered by jealousy. But such issues are not the immediate point. This is how the West is perceived, and the USA is acting in a way to exacerbate the situation. The root causes of terrorism will never be addressed so long as national governments are motivated solely by self-interest or guided by the self-righteous belief that their way is the right way and must be imposed on others. Homer-Dixon's plea that we should not ignore the fact that we live in a seething discontented world must be met by assessing our own role in causing that discontent.