The Politics of Terror

President Bush is obsessed with evil men. We will smoke them out, bring them back dead or alive. Unfortunately, the world as morality play, though comforting to some, carries implications that even the administration cannot live with. If terrorists are literally inhuman madmen, how do you find that which is incomprehensible and unpredictable? George Bush may enjoy a simple faith that good always triumphs over evil, but a culture more secular than even it may wish to acknowledge demands other answers.

As concerns about what government did or can know proliferate, the administration will likely emphasize two themes. Its conservatives will demand more surveillance and better coordination of intelligence activities. Yet relentlessly targeting men of Arab background is not only wrong in itself. It is also counterproductive. It will impede recruitment of agents who could monitor extremist organizations and deter many from coming forward with evidence of dangerous behavior.

The administration's moderates have already hinted that poverty sows the seeds of terror. Though its model of corporate-oriented trade will only exacerbate economic inequality within and between nations, the willingness of some of its spokesmen to imply that terrorists are not simply freaks of nature is to be welcomed.

Citing poverty as a catalyst for terror is, however, somewhat misleading. Instead of treating the terrorists as utterly different, we now assume that they are "just like us." They want a house, car, and color TV. If they can't get these, they stage high-tech temper tantrums and use our toys to destroy us.

One problem with this analysis is that what little evidence we have does not support it. Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, a Middle East specialist in Prague, have presented a careful analysis of Hezbollah militants killed during the late 1980s and early 1990s. These fighters were more likely than the average resident to be above the poverty line and to have enjoyed a secondary or higher education. The authors also cited opinion polls in Palestine to show that the poor were not more likely to support terrorist attacks.

In a thoughtful commentary on the Krueger study, Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby points out that even if poverty does not directly cause terror, it plays an important indirect role. Widespread poverty is often accompanied by political chaos, upon which terrorist cells can thrive. And in such societies, terrorist cells often provide the best avenues of educational and social mobility.

Mallaby's suggestion takes us in a more fruitful direction. Dissident intellectuals, of whom every society has its share, operate under especially adverse circumstances in much of the world today. Political chaos does more than provide space for violent political cells. Dissidents witness the suffering and dispersion of their people, but they have no political voice. Negotiations across and within national and ethnic boundaries are closed. The media and the culture are dominated by government or "secular" corporate interests. Lacking a voice within their larger society, seeing the daily death and starvation of their own people, and facing no internal challenge to their own verities, some of the most educated and affluent come to regard their own truths as immortal, all-embracing, and worth dying and killing for.

Fundamentalists ye will always have with you, but how do we reduce the odds of their killing in the name of their truths? If Osama celebrated Sept. 11, Pat Robertson chortled that these deaths were God's punishment for the sexual perversions of our secular society. Osama had weapons and the willingness to use them. Robertson did not, a substantial moral difference. Nonetheless, where the fundamentalist urge to see final truth in one's lifestyle takes one is a function of more than merely personal morality.

Political culture does make a difference. A modicum of wealth and security matters, but not simply as ends in themselves. They are a means to broader forms of self-expression and political participation.

The belief that good always triumphs or that at least in some core essentials these men are like us are the mirror image of each other and are equally misleading. The social world may ultimately not be fully known or knowable, not merely to us but even to a transcendent God. Perhaps the best answer to terror is to engage the possibility that the world may always exceed our grasp. Terrorists are like us not in the sense that they harbor similar motives but that all of us must live with our own inner demons. All of us die and must find reasons for our death. We harbor musings, fantasies, and fears that often exceed our most carefully formulated ideals and expectations. If there is any answer to terror, it lies in a more open democratic politics than any yet implemented or even fully articulated, in a willingness to engage in dialogue with and find as much space as possible for that in ourselves and others that exceeds even our most profound ideals.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2002 The Progressive Populist