Terrorism is the source of an emerging global crisis. Post-9/11, the U.S.-led war on terrorism has toppled governments, killed or hurt thousands of people, and caused massive economic disruption. Our war effort and the new war machinery being set up under the auspices of Homeland Security, along with enhanced expenditures for border control, intelligence, and emergency preparations, is costing over $200 billion a year.
But the U.S. government's response has not brought us closer to ending terrorism, or reduced our anxieties about future terrorist attacks. On the contrary, our current war on terrorism has only made us more insecure and anxious. We are fighting a blind war, against an undefined enemy, and with little understanding of what causes terrorist attacks or how to anticipate them.
For the past twenty years I have studied crises caused by technological and natural disasters. One lesson I have learned about managing crises is that successful crisis responses are aimed at eliminating their multiple and interacting root causes. All other actions are inadequate and do not eliminate the dangers of future crises.
To eliminate terrorism, we must understand its root causes and address them globally. Key interacting causes of terrorism include:
— structural conditions: the degrading economic, social, and political conditions of billions of people;
— organizational influences: networks of finances, and planning, coordination and communications resources instrumental in creating acts of violence;
— cultural religious influences: poorly understood ideologies and unexamined culture clash between the West and Islamic worlds; and
— individual factors: psychology, stress, and personal incentives for individuals to engage in acts of terror.
Systemic poverty in many countries provides fertile conditions for terrorism to grow. Many people are living in such extreme deprivation and political oppression that for them self-destruction is liberating.
Terrorism must be understood as an organizational phenomenon. It operates with organized finances, planned activities, global coordination and communications. However, terrorists are not organized in a conventional sense.
Instead, terrorism is an aspect of existing organizations. Its genesis lies in the failures of existing corporate, government, military, charity, and intelligence organizations. These failures become the source for inculcating terrorist ideologies, recruiting individuals and providing them resources to perpetrate acts of terror.
Searching for "terrorist organizations" is a futile search. Calling Al Qaeda a "terrorist organization" misses the point that most of its members at many levels are ordinary citizens engaged with many other organizations and occupations. They leverage the resources and failures of existing organizations to accomplish their violent goals.
Acts of terror are organized with complicity of banks, airlines, weapons makers, colleges, charities, and places of worship, among others. This is a key aspect of what makes our war on terrorism a blind war. We do not know how to "see" or identify a terrorist organization or define its boundaries. We do not know how to identify which conventional organizations are unintentionally or intentionally complicit in terror-organizing processes.
Our public leaders have implicated Islamic ideologies and culture in terrorism. But the focus on Islam is unfortunately too narrow. The world has experienced terrorism by Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, cults on Japan, and Christians in America.
Yes, ideologies do play a role but not in the sense portrayed by our leaders and the media. Ideologies and religion are not the cause of terrorism. They are an excuse used by a few radical extremist leaders to recruit many disenfranchised people to their cause.
The immediate instruments of terrorism are the individuals who engage in violent acts. Their psychology and motivations are complex. They cannot be simply characterized as criminals. Some of them have genuine nationalist, religious, professional, social, political, and even philanthropic and humanitarian credentials. We need a more sophisticated vocabulary to define and understand the perpetrators.
How can we reduce and eventually eliminate acts of terror? This is the $200 billion question that the Bush Administration needs to address, but has not. Rushing blindly into a global war with an unknowable enemy is wreaking a heavy toll on our troops and our economy. It is fomenting a global crisis. Most importantly, it has not made the United States or the world any safer.
A more effective way of fighting terror is to use our resources to eliminate extreme poverty in areas most susceptible to terrorist recruiting. We should put money into educating the masses about secular, scientific, and tolerant alternatives to religious extremism. And we should put our political and military resources into establishing peace in the Middle East.
Paul Shrivastava is the Howard I. Scott Professor of Management at Bucknell University and author of Bhopal: Anatomy of a Crisis.
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