Not a Cure-all, But a Contribution

The comments by Risa Brooks regarding the economic and political roots of terrorism exhibit a characteristic frequently found in the debunking of such roots: an absolutist straw man. We are warned not to place stock in economic development as far as counterterrorism is concerned because the evidence shows that development assistance is not “the remedy” to terrorism. We are similarly counseled not to look to political liberalization for help because “exposure to political processes alone is insufficient” to turn people into peaceful political animals and because expanding democracy does not “drain the swamp” of support for terrorism. I know no one who has argued in favor of such absolute propositions regarding economic or political roots. Anyone who did would deserve to be derided (or ignored) just as much as anyone who pointed to any other single factor as the key to combating terrorism, be it seizing terrorist money, assassinating terrorist leaders, or pacifying a particular piece of territory.

In short, just because something doesn’t explain all of the variance doesn’t mean it cannot explain some of it. Brooks is right when she says that societal tolerance for violence is “multifaceted and complicated.” We should be interested in anything that, even if it cannot drain the swamp, can lower the water level somewhat. And counterexamples, such as terrorists who are rich or who enjoy political freedoms, are just that: counterexamples, which in turn can be countered by still other examples.

The debunking of the economic roots of terrorism is further plagued by oversimplification that treats poverty as the only variable worth testing. To the extent that poverty-vs.-wealth is a significant variable, the relationship probably is curvilinear, with the desperately poor being more concerned about the basics of food, clothing, and shelter than about ginning up a terrorist operation. Most likely the economic conditions that most matter go beyond poverty-vs.-wealth and have at least as much to do with mobility and opportunity. Most of this may be hard for a researcher to operationalize in a quantitative study, but that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant to terrorism.

As for political conditions, Alan Krueger—whom Brooks cites—has done some of the most useful quantitative work. He, unlike many others, has carefully disentangled the country of a terrorist’s origin from the country where a terrorist operation occurs. One of his most interesting results is a significant negative correlation between the extent of political and civil liberties and a country’s propensity to breed terrorists.

Something else Brooks mentions—terrorist groups that have political wings—is also significant, but not because of any absolutist straw man about mere exposure to political processes turning terrorists into puppy dogs. Rather, such organizations are an embodiment of the principle—as perceived by the groups themselves—that terrorism and peaceful political competition can be alternative means toward the same end. To the extent that one means is available and works, the other one is less attractive. PIRA/Sinn Fein provides an example of the peaceful political means eventually being available and working sufficiently well that the terrorist means was forsaken. Hamas provides an opposite example—not because the underlying principle about alternative means is not valid, but instead because Israel and the United States refused to let the peaceful political means work (i.e., when it resulted in a Hamas victory).

So I generally agree with Paddy Hillyard’s observations about political and economic roots.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, sociologist Paddy Hillyard argues that “terrorism,” as a term, unduly empowers both state and non-state actors who engage in violence: Terrorists, so called, gain in prestige and publicity; governments, who claim to protect us against terrorists, typically resort to improper coercion, destroy civil liberties, and alienate large segments of the governed population — who then turn to terrorism. Hillyard suggests that “political violence” would be a more useful because more analytically neutral term, one that potentially embraces both state and nonstate violence for political ends.

Response Essays

  • Max Abrahms cautions against lumping together all groups found under the terrorist label. Not all political violence is alike. Significant differences exist, he argues, between terrorists who target civilians and those who attack military targets. The former tend not to achieve their stated political goals — and this is a usable message for governments wishing to protect their populations. If terrorists don’t achieve their political objectives when they attack civilians, we should ask what other motivations they may have, and address those as well.

  • Risa Brooks casts doubt on the correlation between democracy and terrorism prevention, and likewise the correlation between prosperity and terrorism prevention. We commonly observe terrorist organizations with political wings or allied political parties, for example. And many terrorists are well-educated, middle-class individuals. Further, many very poor societies have little terrorism to speak of. Addressing the root causes of terrorism is a noble goal, but these causes may be so idiosyncratic or so driven by small group dynamics that we can’t easily reach them via public policy.

  • Paul Pillar makes the case for clarity of terms in the debate over terrorism. He first argues that this area of public policy is especially burdened by loaded language. He next proposes a definition of the word terrorism on which he thinks he and Paddy Hillyard can agree. Finally, he suggests that labels for various violent acts may work to obscure the difficult issues underlying them. If so, we should return to these fundamentals, and agree to put debate over the labels aside.