The Fallacy of Root Causes

“If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.” — W. Somerset Maugham, Strictly Personal.

When people speak of searching for the “root causes” of Islamic terrorism, one can be certain that those causes are really the last things in which these people are interested. Some who seek such causes are so unfamiliar with abject evil that they fruitlessly search for rational explanations, where no such conventional rationality applies. Some habitually, in the words of Jeanne Kirkpatrick, “Blame America First.” As people immerse themselves in the soft rhetoric of understanding and sympathy, they can avoid looking squarely at hard unpleasant realities. They can simply fret about misunderstandings, while congratulating themselves on their moral sensitivity.

There is little secular rational reasoning for the anger of Islamic militants against the United States and the West. It has been over 50 years since countries like Britain and France have dominated areas of the Middle East. If Western values and customs have leaked into Islamic countries, it is because their own people have embraced them. It is strict Islamic theocracies that find it necessary to enforce religious restraints on freedom, particular its women.

Charles Krauthammer has recently pointed out that over the last decade the US has been involved in three wars, in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In all these cases, American military power protected Muslims, sometimes against other Muslims. Before that, Americans helped the Afghani people resist Soviet domination. Rationality would suggest that gratitude from Islamic peoples is in order.

An alternative perennial complaint is that the root of the hatred of America in the Islamic world is American support of Israel. The fact that Israel is the only democracy in the area with a similar respect for individual liberties makes the US and Israel natural allies. Nonetheless, despite repeated acts of terrorism against Israel by radical Palestinians and other groups, the United States spent much of the 1990s pushing, pulling, and pressuring Israelis in a futile effort to swap “land for peace.” The Palestinian response to a dramatic Israeli peace overture last year, that even offered partial control of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, was a flat refusal to negotiate.

The truth is that only the Palestinians are strongly motivated by anti-Israeli fervor. While other Islamic countries vocally oppose Israel, for most Islamic countries anti-Israeli rhetoric is a convenient distraction to internal policy failures. Islamic aversion to Israel is born more of a reflexive support of Palestinian brethren than any strong geopolitical concern. Support of Israel is not a root cause the hatred of Americans. Even if it were, to abandon a democracy to theocratic tyrannies would be a repudiation of our own values.

The final argument by those in search of root causes is that terrorism is born of the wealth disparity caused by the West. While there is room for development in many poor Islamic countries, many others have become wealthy by selling oil. Bin Laden is a child of privilege and his agents who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were middle class and educated. Whatever the source of their discontent, it is not economic.

The real root cause of radical Islamic terrorism is its objection to history. Mainstream Islam is fully consistent with modern values of individualism, democracy, and tolerance. Islamic-Americans are both true to their faith and prosperous. However, there is a fundamentalist strain of Islam that has not accommodated itself to the twentieth century. Its adherents look back at centuries of cultural and military dominance of much of the world by Islamic culture and have not reconciled themselves to a world where modern Western values have created enormous wealth. Islam may be consistent with modernity, but modern wealth and affluence did not arise out of Islamic culture and a certain, broad-based resentment lingers. Leaders like Bin Laden and the late Ayatollah Khomeini exploit this resentment to impose their own form of religious tyranny with its rejection of both tolerance and respect for individual conscience. The real root causes of radical Islamic terrorism and the hatred of the United States by some are our values. We cannot eliminate these root causes without jettisoning our own values.

Unfortunately, the Islamic holy-warrior ethos, misdirected and used by the likes of Bin Laden and his agents for nefarious purposes, is usually stopped only by overwhelming military defeat. Reuel Marc Gerecht, in the Weekly Standard, explained how in 1898 the British defeated the Mahdist regime in Sudan with modern machine guns and artillery. The Ottomans crushed the “ultra-radical Iranian Shah Ismail at the battle of Chaldiran with musketry and sword” in 1514. According to Gerecht, “demonstrating with frightful clarity the indefatigability of the triumphant power” cracks the resolve of even the most committed warriors.

It is unlikely that reason and persuasion will prevail. Regular terrorist attacks on the West and on moderate Islamic countries will likely abate only with the forceful destruction of terrorists and their infrastructure. Very likely, American service people will die in the service of a culture, value system, and a country that allows people to squander their time looking for root causes. If ever there is confusion as to which side in this conflict represents evil and darkness, remember who deliberately killed innocents by slamming civilian airliners into buildings. If ever there is uncertainty as to who represents goodness and light, remember who fights for the freedom to ponder, publish, and argue about the root causes of conflict.

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