Is Ron Paul Absolutely Right, or Is He Absolutely Wrong About Terrorism?

What causes terrorism? This is more than just an academic question. It has become an important part of GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul's foreign policy position.
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What causes terrorism? This is more than just an academic question. It has become an important part of GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul's foreign policy position.

How 'cause' is defined is very important. If the use of the word 'cause' compels something, U.S. policy in the Middle East did not cause terrorism. If the use of 'cause' implies influencing or contributing to..., a stronger case may be made.

Many variables should be considered -- frustration; peer influences; religion; employment level; policies; family influences; freedom; liberalism; life stressors; war; seeing a friend or family member killed; invasions; etc. This is not an exhaustive list and the list could certainly go on.

The Role of Policy

Terrorism by its very definition is an illegal act of violence to scare, intimidate or harm others for political purposes. Because terrorism has a political element, policy certainly has a role. This is where Ron Paul is more astute than the other GOP candidates. So Ron Paul is not absolutely wrong; he only over states his case by using the word 'cause' (or 'because') and by not mentioning the importance of other variables. Doing so would dilute his message but it would be more accurate.

For example, Ron Paul stated "They attacked us because we have been over there bombing them for 10 years." Paul also stated that "If we think we can do that (occupy foreign lands) and not have retaliation, we are kidding ourselves." And Paul stated "They're terrorists because we're occupiers."

Paul moves between suggesting motive and cause; motive might be more accurate but it is not the whole story. He is right that there may be and is a conscious motive, but there are also subconscious factors including the way one's life is shaped that have to be considered, too. Without these, we can't understand what causes one person to commit terrorism and another person subjected to the same policy to not commit terrorism.

The opposite perspective on the cause of terrorism is what Rick Santorum said, which is that our culture and civilization are antithetical to that of their extreme jihadi culture. This position doesn't consider anything of importance or other variables that must be considered.

Osama bin Laden also overstated his own case claiming that U.S. policies caused him to declare war. Many other Muslims not only did not rise up to his call for jihad against the U.S., but they repudiated his position. There was something different about OBL (and other terrorist who sympathize with him) than that of others subjected to the same policies but who don't commit and even reject terrorism.

This issue of what 'causes' terrorism is more than just semantics. The use of the word 'cause' or 'because' misses other essential elements necessary for someone to jump from being a hater (thinking) to a terrorist (doing).

For example, the 'policy only' point of view doesn't consider that some people are affected by U.S. policies differently whereby some have lost a friend or family due to the policy; it was that 'loss' not the 'policy' that was the trigger. But for the loss of the family or friend, the policy probably only caused hate. Add to that hate the death of a family member or a close friend and we now have a catalyst, but that too might not be enough. The decision to commit terrorism at the heart of it is a very personal matter; there is no 'one size fits all' cause to the cause of terrorism.

The problem with anyone's use of the word 'cause' is that 'cause' (or 'because') is too strong of a word. This is more than semantics; it has important implications for how we deal with terrorists and predicting where they come from. In the social sciences -- and both political science and international relations are social sciences -- use of the word 'cause' must meet certain criteria.

Necessary and Sufficient

As noted above, how 'cause' is defined is very important. If the use of the word 'cause' compels something, U.S. policy in the Middle East did not cause terrorism. If any policy or set of policies were the 'cause' of terrorism, everyone affected by the policy should be a terrorist. This is not the case. In fact, more than 99.99% of Muslims in the Middle East do not engage in terrorism. Most don't like U.S. foreign policy, most even hate it. But this does not mean that they turn to terrorism. They express their resentment in other ways, if at all. If X doesn't lead that 99.99% of people to do Y (within a statistically significant range), X doesn't cause Y; something else is necessary. X may predispose to Y, but it does not cause Y. Having said that, it is important to recognize that policy may be necessary for terrorism but it is not sufficient to cause terrorism.

Policy may be necessary to cause terrorism, but it is not sufficient??? What this means is that by the logic of Osama bin Laden policy is a prime motivator to declare war on the U.S. (necessary), but alone it is not enough to cause terrorism (sufficient). OBL's other life experiences were necessary for him to wage a war on the U.S. Policy gave him a reason to hate, but that he participated in Afghanistan in the 1980s, was influenced by Abdullah Azzam, that he had a very particular interpretation of Islam, that he was influenced by Ayman Al Zawahiri (who was influenced by Sayid Qutb and his calls for jihad against the government in response to Jahiliyya), and that he felt that he had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to declare war on the U.S., and reason to believe he could win -- religion and seeing the USSR leave from Afghanistan. OBL said that he declared war on the U.S. for reasons all to do with policy, but he ignores all of these other elements that he was subjected to that are all contributing factors.

Let's use Ron Paul's example of China invading the U.S. Paul rightly said that it would cause us to resent them. But the implication was that this would cause violence. However, even though everyone in the U.S. would hate China, not everyone would turn to violence. Some people would mumble about how they hate China. Some people would protest about how they hate China. Some people would try to resolve the invasion through diplomacy. Yet a few people would become violent and resort to terrorism. If only a minority turn to violence (meaning that a majority don't), this means that something is different about the people who commit violence compared to those who don't. In other words, from this perspective, policy may have been necessary for terrorism, but not sufficient. This is the point that Ron Paul blurs.

President Bush never corrected anyone from thinking that Iraq wasn't involved in 9/11 even though he never specifically said so; he only hinted at it. Considering the comments left in another article, some Ron Paul supporters claim that stating that Paul says policy 'caused' terrorism is a straw man argument, i.e. that Ron Paul doesn't say 'the cause' but says 'a motive.' Others say Ron Paul is right in claiming that policy caused terrorism. Clearly, there is confusion even among people who support Ron Paul. If Ron Paul doesn't think that our policies 'cause' terrorism, then he should say so and identify the other variables that have also contributed to terrorism.

It is hard to say what OBL would have done with his life had U.S. policy in the Middle East been different. The combinations and permutations on this counter-factual are well beyond the space constraints here. One thing is for sure, the U.S. was not attacked because we are a free country -- that is an explanation to push a political agenda. If that were the case any country that is free would have been fair game for attack by Osama bin Laden (OBL).

Ron Paul is much closer to understanding the dynamics between U.S. foreign policy and tensions in the Middle East than any other GOP candidate and most Republicans. But Ron Paul overstates his case in claiming (or suggesting) that our policies 'cause' terrorism or we were hit 'because we did, x, y or z'. Policy may be a necessary factor, but it is not sufficient to cause terrorism.

PAUL HEROUX lived and worked in Al Malaz, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2003 (the neighborhood Osama bin Laden was born in), has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and is a Master's graduate of the Harvard University JFK School of Government. He can be reached at

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