POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Poor Terrorists...

Today we have another guest essay from my prolific friend Tim Dees.  This one comments on a recent "analysis" done by a NY Times op ed writer.  Enjoy



Every now and then, I read something so shocking I have to read it twice.  Today's New York Times contained just such a statement (see here).  The statement in question was part of an article by Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel.  The article started with some neo-Malthusian musings about how people in the developed world consume about thirty-two times as many resources as people in the developing world.  He makes a good point that, for purposes of global resources, we ought to worry more about the developed countries than about the developing countries, regardless of lightning-fast growth rates in third-world countries.  At this point, it sounds like a pretty standard op-ed piece for the Times, but then it took a wrong turn in the following paragraph:

"People in the third world are aware of this difference in per capita consumption, although most of them couldn't specify that it's by a factor of 32. When they believe their chances of catching up to be hopeless, they sometimes get frustrated and angry, and some become terrorists, or tolerate or support terrorists. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that the oceans that once protected the United States no longer do so. There will be more terrorist attacks against us and Europe, and perhaps against Japan and Australia, as long as that factorial difference of 32 in consumption rates persists."

This paragraph (which in no way relates to the rest of the article) expounds a popular idea that has absolutely no grounding in reality, research, or common sense: that terrorists become terrorists because they are jealous of our stuff.  Why on earth do people think this?

Such a belief holds out blindly against the facts.  Alan Krueger and a host of other researchers have done extensive research that shows that terrorists are less likely to be poor than non-terrorists (see this essay)When terror goes global, it's almost always funded by Saudi money - and the Saudis can consume with the best of them - and it's usually carried out by the educated upper class.  Think about it this way: if you knew Osama bin Laden's father, he would almost certainly be the richest person you've ever met.

But let's also think about the targets of these attacks.  Right now, the vast majority of terrorist attacks going on in the world are happening in Iraq, and they are usually against Sunnis or Shiites, not against Americans.  Today, the news reported a number of suicide attacks, and none of them were against Americans.  They were all the result of internecine conflicts within Iraq.  And what about Japan and Australia, for whom Diamond predicts future terrorist attacks?  Why doesn't anyone attack them?  This is a worthy question that Diamond dodges.  If terrorism is about consumption, then terrorists should attack consumption wherever it is.  But we all know that it doesn't.

Another serious problem with this statement is its failure to listen to terrorists.  Terrorists usually aren't quiet about why they attack certain countries; in fact, Osama bin Laden issues press releases with industrious regularity.  After September 11th, Osama bin Laden said that attacks would continue until "we can see it as a reality in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed".  This was his primary demand, and in no way does he mention differences in consumption or wealth (for the full statement, see here).  In fact, bin Laden mentions Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples of American arrogance.  If these attacks were against the developed world, why would bin Laden identify himself with a first-world nation?

With all the evidence in his face, how does Diamond (along with so many others) persist with this message that terrorism is provoked by poverty?  I think the answer to this question lies in a specific strain of thinking among the Western Left that I will call economic reductionism (ER).  In ER, everything comes back to money.  There's no such thing as good and bad, true and false, right and wrong, just rich and poor.  Teach a man to fish, and the world is healed.

It's got a beat and you can dance to it, but it just doesn't hold up.  Poverty doesn't trigger terrorism.  Osama bin Laden isn't flying planes into buildings because he's holding out for a Starbucks on every corner and a Hummer in every garage.  Jared Diamond should know better.