Click here if you don’t see subscription options
The EditorsJanuary 19, 2009

Among the array of challenges facing Barack Obama in his first year in office will be the ongoing struggle against terrorism, both at home and abroad. As the vicious terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November and the recent Hamas rocket attacks against Israel made clear, no nation involved in international politics and commerce is free from the threat of political violence. The past few years have shown that civilization rests on a much more precarious footing than we might have believed even a decade ago.

But who is the real enemy in the global fight against terrorism? Even to call this conflict a “war on terror” is misleading, given that our enemies are of such disparate origins and intentions. Sweeping generalizations—that our enemy is the Islamofascist, the Muslim fanatic, the anarchist, the ignorant youth—are often harmful in the formation of any effective response to terrorism.

A sincere yet harmful truism is that our real enemy is ignorance, that if our opponents could be freed of propaganda and false conceptions, their rage against Euro-American civilization would abate. But any truthful analysis of terrorist motives requires the concession that the real root cause of their actions is resentment. Often enough, education actually leads not to greater appreciation for Western culture, but to even deeper antipathy. The hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, are a case in point. Many of the attackers had achieved high levels of education as engineers, scientists and academics. Many studied abroad, and several—ringleader Mohammad Atta among them—would fit the definition of upwardly mobile young professionals. Nevertheless, they were seduced by an ideology that convinced them that their death, and the deaths of thousands of innocents, was the appropriate response to their condition.

While scholars like Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, the best-selling study of Islamic terrorism, have shown the powerful influence of fundamentalist religious beliefs in terrorist recruitment, groups like Al Qaeda gain from the religious and from the resentful, drawing devotees from those who find that the adoption of Western economic and social practices does not always translate into economic opportunity or social progress. Oftentimes the very technological advances that should have led to greater upward mobility—the Internet and global communications among them—have provided terrorist groups with the means to link up previously isolated cells. Access to the media has two ill effects, offering greater awareness of severe economic disparities and an introduction to a global entertainment environment profoundly at odds with the religious and cultural sensibilities of many peoples.

Another alarming portent of future terror is the real possibility of widespread state failure. In its most recent analysis of global trends, the National Intelligence Council suggested that by 2025, as many as 36 nations (with a total population of 1.4 billion) will face shortages of fresh water and sustainable food supplies. A number of these nations, which are overwhelmingly in Africa and the Middle East, are already unable to provide consistent law and order. These same countries are also experiencing a “youth bulge” of young men and women now entering adulthood.

State failure also represents a failure of compassion on the part of the wealthy and stable nations of the world. Imperiled nations support exactly the populations among whom resentment will be strongest if the world community fails them, if instead of jobs and security they find chaos, disease and suffering. In the past, the international community has failed to intervene effectively when neglected situations became humanitarian catastrophes, with Zimbabwe and Somalia as prime examples. As Pope Benedict XVI noted in his visit to the United Nations last year, the “duty to protect” is not just an internal matter for nations, but an international duty.

It is crucial that the United States abandon the rhetoric that casts the international struggle against terrorism exclusively in terms of a crusade against religious fanaticism. The anger that accompanies the ongoing and worsening social ills among the world’s poorest populations also contributes mightily to terror’s allure. Remedying such widespread resentment will not be easy, and cannot be done alone. A reasonable beginning would include greater international cooperation on sustainable development, renegotiation of lopsided trade agreements, a rethinking of the economics of globalization and an end to military and political unilateralism on the part of the United States. All this will, of course, require money—but far less than the world will spend combating the terror and violence that will otherwise flourish amid the ruins.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Patrick Eicker
15 years 6 months ago
Your comment that they're ignorant is interesting. Was Huntington right?
15 years 6 months ago
You need to take in mind the central difference between Establishment Terrorism and Insurgent Terrorism. The original terrorist in the Middle East is Israel. If you not include that point, your views amount to party propaganda.
15 years 6 months ago
You wrote, "A reasonable beginning would include greater international cooperation on sustainable development, renegotiation of lopsided trade agreements, a rethinking of the economics of globalization and an end to military and political unilateralism on the part of the United States." I would respectfully submit that this borders on a non-sequitur in response to the problem of terrorist violence. The states that spawn terrorists do not need development aid; they are awash in oil revenues themselves, and are frequently in a favorable trade relationship with the West! The neo-Marxist analysis of the terrorist challenge is so intent on pinning the rose on economic explanations that it consistently neglects or minimizes the extent to which terror leaps from the members of one religious group (Islam) and is frequently directed against those of the Judeo-Christian heritage in the West (i.e., the United States, England, and Israel). This characteristic of the conflict risks over-explanation at times, but it is not irrelevant; as a statistician might say, there is a positive correlation between Islam and violent activity against the West. I do not notice any headlines this morning telling of Hindu or Buddhist violence directed toward the West.
15 years 6 months ago
I sent a comment signed tpfarrelly, but now see that you want a first and last name. That would be Tom Farrelly
15 years 6 months ago
It's seem a bit nutty to me that this article would seem to equate the Mombai attack with the crude rockets launched by Palestinians that have killed one Israeli civilian. Never mind that resistance to an illegal and inhumane imprisonment of all the people in Gaza in a place the vatican has called a concentration camp is understood by most of the world. Resistance to occupation is recognized under international law. The Palestinian people have been denied food, water and medical services. Their civilian infrastructure has been completely incinerated, and many their elected official have been kidnapped or assassinated. A reaction to such crimes is normal. This inhumane occupation and the stealing of their lands has been going on for decades. We need to be as critical of State terrorism as we are of non-State terrorism. An infant killed or damaged by the State suffers equally regardless of the murderers. I do agree with the Editors that the broad attacks make on Islam are misguided, and the War on Terrorism needs to look at causes.
15 years 6 months ago
I agree with this analysis. We have to develop that we call "multilateralism", better economic development, better "trade off" with "thid world" etc. And help open minded people among muslims etc. There is something true in the thesis of Huntington even if he neglected the differences inside each culture or religion, and the importance of nationalism. The "values" are in permanent conflicts... Let us try to reduce them. But what to do against fanatism? M.P.
15 years 6 months ago
I recommend the editors, and everyone else, read , Lives of the Saints by Jonathan Harr, in the January 5 New Yorker. It depicts the experiences of UN workers in Chad, who deal with the problems of mostly Sudanese refugees in UN camps against a background of genocide in Sudan and a murderous civil was in Chad, conducted by armies of thugs who simply want power and money. A reader comes away with a feeling of the utter hopelessness of western efforts to alleviate suffering in such circumstances, as well as the depravity of the Sudanese and the Chad fighters. Regarding this editorial, it highlights the fact that most human suffering in the Third World has nothing to do with the West, or with who is President of the United States. The main thrust of this editorial, that somehow the US is at fault and with proper behavior can significantly alleviate such horrors, is simply nonsensical, and is not the first one to propagate such silly ideas. The NY Yorker article also indirectly illuminates the role of Muslim regimes in causing horror and terror wherever they rule, something hardly consonant with this editorial.
15 years 6 months ago
having worked most of my life in the third world of poverty i can easily understand the concerns expressed in this editorial. however, i have not seen a capacity among the poor to organize themselves, to get on their own feet and tackle the source(s) of their problem. So i don't see any threat from the poor per se. Of course, such poverty is the breeding ground of fighters and militants. By fighters i mean those who fight with a warlord to gain local control of some valuable, and to have power over the local miserables. Africa is full of these at the present time and they make it more or less impossible to develop an institutional order (and especially given the corruption of the institutional order!...e.g. the congo). Militants on the other hand have an ideology of one kind or another. These fight for a cause, to expell the foreigner, to overthrow their governments which are corrupt and allied to the foreigner and so on. The Islamic fundamentalists are militants. The operate outside the law, and cannot be comprehended in legal terms. They are also international and their goal is the destruction of "the west" (even though this is absurd). They have to be treated in a different manner. I think that if there were any kind of real middle class development in the muslim world, their growth would be stunted, and while they would continue to be a problem, they could be dealt with legally. If we accept their current regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan their influence will grow. bush concentrated on regime change in the wrong countries! You simply cannot have this scandalous wealth in countries where people are not just poor, they have a strong sense of self and a political religious culture. They will fight unless the situation changes. They will not be convinced by words. Their current economic and cultural and political conditions have to change...not radically and in any kind of revolutionary fashion, but significantly. this in my view should be the new Obama middle east policy and it includes a recipe for a different Israeli approach to their neighbors. Develop their middle class.
15 years 6 months ago
When I read the headline of this article I immediately thought of Fr Malachi Martin .Fr Martins thesis was that the Jesuits had completely lost their supernatural outlook and so were incapable of penetrating to the true roots of problems any longer and so also were bereft of a clear analysis and reasonable response to the different areas and crises that the world faces.They relied upon a geo-political framework that involved everything from Sociology to Economics to Anthropology ,the secondary causes had been promoted to the primary role.I scanned the article for any mention of God.There was none.
15 years 6 months ago
In response to comment #1 stating that "the countries that spawn terrorists are already awash in oil-revenues with favorable trade agreements with the West" therefore renegotiating treaties or rethinking globalization would do nothing to curb terrorism, i must disagree. I do agree these countries have massive amounts of revenue, plenty from oil, but to think the general population ever reaps even a small benefit of these revenues would be silly. Saudi royalty has never redistributed their wealth and i don't dare say they ever will if their political and economic institutions stay intact. Although someone who commits an act of terrorism has many motives and reasons for doing so, it can be said that one of the most important causes is a feeling that there is no other avenue with which they can express themelves. They are almost always non-state actors who have no official political avenue, lack the manpower for a full out military attack, and are often of lower socio-economic status. I think the article does a great job at addressing the situation, and the beginning ideas for remedy i feel are the best cards we have on the table. An easy job? anything but, however i believe it is in the all of our best interests to start working on solutions.
15 years 5 months ago
I agree with the analysis. But what to make of president Obama's statement, among others, that there is no need to apologize for the American way of life? I think that "the American way of life" is at least part of the problem, because the "American way of life (and that of many other developed "first world" countries as well)is so often at the expense of poor countries who so often provide goods and labor cheaply to our advantage only.

The latest from america

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis greets congress-goers following the final Youth Mass of the National Eucharistic Congress on July 20, 2024. (OSV News photo/Gretchen R. Crowe)
Discomfort disappeared as quickly as it had come, and I found a community of belonging and belief. We all have a place here at the National Eucharistic Congress.
Eric Immel, S.J.July 20, 2024
A Reflection for the Feast of St. James, Apostle, by Julian Navarro
Julian NavarroJuly 19, 2024
A Reflection for Tuesday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time, by Connor Hartigan
Connor HartiganJuly 19, 2024
A Reflection for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, by Delaney Coyne
Delaney CoyneJuly 19, 2024