The Root Causes of Terrorism and Why No One Wants to End Them

Everyone talks about 'fighting terrorism' at the roots, but no one does anything about it. It's much easier--and relieves more anxiety and frustration--to go bomb somebody. Making "war" on terrorism is a lot like taking a couple of drinks to cure a hangover--an enjoyable short-term solution and a disastrous long-term one. But long-term solutions have never played well in Washington, the land of the quick fix. Nor with the American public for that matter--our instant-gratification consumer society has a bevy of corporations competing to make that instant even shorter.

The people who do most to foment terrorism are not the fundamentalist imams and ayatollahs, who only exploit the hopelessness around them. The people who do the most are those who create that hopelessness in the first place--the oil monarchies, for example.

For of all capitalist enterprises, the extractive industries are probably the most deserving of the abuse heaped on them over the years. The possessors of the earth's treasures believe, apparently, that the luck, wealth, or political corruption that allowed them to own land containing such riches is a sign of divine favor, while the poverty of those around them indicates celestial disgust.

Terrorists are people who have lost hope--hope for the possibility of peacefully creating a better world. They may be middle-class and educated, as many terrorist leaders are, but their despair is one of empathy for the plight of their people as a whole.

The root causes of terrorism are pathological inequalities in wealth--not just in Saudi Arabia but all over the Third World. Even in our own country Republican policies have in recent decades created inequalities so extreme that while a few have literally more money than they can possibly use, the vast majority are struggling to get by. A society that impoverishes most of its population in order to enrich a few neurotically greedy individuals is a sick society. As Jared Diamond has shown, societies in which a few plunder the environment at the expense of the many are headed for collapse.

Fundamentalist religions and radical ideologies are the common refuge of people without hope. Christianity has played this role for centuries. The rich encourage the poor to accept the misery of this world as a passport to heaven, despite the fact that according to Jesus they don't have a prayer of getting in themselves. This isn't really surprising. The rich wouldn't be caught dead in a place where they let poor people in.

Islamic fundamentalism is the latest drug being offered the poor and desperate. It has the added appeal that you can not only get into heaven but also take vengeance at the same time.

Terrorism will never end until caps are placed on inequality. At this point Republicans usually start screaming about communism and destroying 'freedom'. But no one's talking about ending capitalism. Capitalism is here to stay, but like any system it will self-destruct without limits. Pure greed is not a sufficient basis for a viable social system, and a pure free market system will self-destruct as surely as pure communism. As Lewis Mumford pointed out years ago, no system can survive without contradictions, because humans are much more complex than their ideologies.

A completely pure, unrestrained free market, for example, would end by poisoning its consumers, starving its workers to death, exhausting all the earth's resources, and turning into a single giant monopoly that no longer had anything to sell, no one to make its product, and no one who could afford to buy it--perhaps no one even alive on an uninhabitable planet. Government regulation exists not only to protect the consumer, the worker, and the environment, it exists also to protect capitalism from destroying itself. For there is absolutely nothing in free market ideology that provides for long-range thinking.

Capitalism is the most dynamic and powerful force in the world today. The only political question is what to do with its tendency to get into positive feedback loops and self-destruct. Republicans tend to act in ways to heighten this tendency, to feed those loops and help it along the path to self-destruction. Democrats tend to act to curb its self-destructiveness.

Placing caps on wealth through taxation or other means--an idea that provokes screams of horror from Republicans--is absolutely necessary for our survival. Not because it's obscene for some people to have incomes of a million dollars a day while millions of equally able--but less neurotic--people are a single hospital stay away from homelessness. Not because excess wealth can't buy anything except power--the ability to corrupt the political process and destroy democracy, as it already largely has in the United States. But because it tends to stifle creativity, suck money from the future (the education of children) to the present (short-term profits for the already wealthy), and decimate the middle class.

In other words, to kill hope.