Call me slow, but I think have finally understood one of the most puzzling claims of terror warriors, namely, that the crucial difference between them and their liberal opponents is that the latter believe that hunger and poverty cause terrorism. As Norman Podhoretz writes, “standard academic and intellectual discourse” holds that terrorism is “a product of economic factors,” namely, “hunger and poverty.” Victor David Hanson offers a vriation on this theme. With the assumption that poverty causes terrorism triumphantly refuted, Bush’s defenders go on to proclaim that only Bush truly grasped the nature of terrorism.
Neither Podhoretz, Hanson nor their comrades cite any evidence for the claim that the poverty-causes-terrorism theory is widely influential. Nor could they find much if they looked. When I googled “poverty terrorism,” nine out of top ten hits expressly deny that poverty causes terrorism. The one that doesn’t is a BBC report on self-serving “world leaders” demanding more assistance from rich Western countries. If anything is an academic or intellectual commonplace, it is to observe that the 9/11 attackers (to say nothing of bin Laden himself) came from affluent families. The claim that poverty causes terrorism comes up, if at all, only for ridicule.
Why then have Bush supporters carried on as if by denying that poverty causes terrorism they have decisively refuted their opponents? Podhoretz, Hanson, et al. are not stupid. Nor would I say they are dishonest. “The opponent has always to be explained,” wrote Walter Lippmann, “and the last explanation that we ever look for is that he sees a different set of facts.” What facts do Bush’s supporters see that make them fret over the poverty-causes-terrorism bugaboo?
I think the answer is this: In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the theme of Palestinian suffering is omnipresent. Some say that if you address the Palestinian’s grievances, you will remove their inducements to terrorism; others that the Palestinians need to solve their own problems and accept Israel’s right to exist. In the meantime, say the latter, Israel has the right to do what it takes to defend itself.
Remember that Bush’s defenders see all Muslim terrorism as essentially the same. Whatever the differences among Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda or the myriad other Muslim terrorist organizations, they all share the same nihilistic hatred for freedom and civilization. Thus, when somebody argues that Israel can reduce the threat of terrorism by relieving the desperation of the Palestinians, Bush’s defenders do not just hear an argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, they hear a claim about the nature of all Muslim terrorism—including that aimed at Americans. Hence, they experience themselves as having refuted a core assumption of Bush’s opponents when they deny that poverty causes terrorism,
On its own terms, this view of “standard academic and intellectual discourse” makes perfect sense. Bush’s defenders have generally not acknowledged those scholars—such as Robert Pape—who see the each suicide terrorist movement as motivated by a distinct dispute over the control of land. Instead, they assume that all terrorism has the same cause, namely, a malevolent ideology. As the congruence of all Muslim terrorism seems obvious to them, they assume it is equally obvious to their opponents. They conclude that all that have to do to win the debate is to identify the correct global cause of terrorism. Their peculiar framework, in short, blinds them to the reality that the claim that poverty causes terrorism just isn’t very influential.
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