NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Root Causes" Don't Always Explain Terror

November 19, 2001

While it has become commonplace to discuss the "root causes" of terror since September 11, some critics say the theory that terrorism is an extreme reaction to grievous and long-festering injustices -- particularly economic inequality and poverty -- has been inconsistently applied.

  • While poverty in Islamic countries is cited as a root cause, poverty can easily exist without sparking terror (think of the American Depression) and terror can exist without poverty.
  • European religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, which involved considerable terror, crossed all economic boundaries.
  • The left-wing terrorists of the '70s and '80s were solidly middle class, and many of the main operatives of contemporary Islamic groups are at the very least middle class.

Moreover, the injustice theory leaves no room for religious passion and both religious and political fundamentalism, under which every aspect of life, all of history and all natural law are governed by a single set of ideas that grant incomparable power and authority to the fundamentalist.

The goal of the totalitarian terrorist is not to eliminate injustice, therefore, but to eliminate opposition. Thus arguments about "root causes" are irrelevant.

Source: Edward Rothstein, "Exploring the Flaws in the Notion of the 'Root Causes' of Terror," New York Times, November 17, 2001.


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