Man Without Qualities

Friday, April 19, 2002

The root cause of terrorism is ... ?

In today’s OpinionJournal Benjamin Netanyahu argues that “the root cause of terrorism is totalitarianism. Only a totalitarian regime, by systemically brainwashing its subjects, can indoctrinate hordes of killers to suspend all moral constraints for the sake of a twisted cause.”

I wish it were true.

Mr. Netanyahu is almost certainly correct to deny that “the root cause of terrorism is the deprivation of national and civic rights.” Deprivation of national and civic rights is deplorable, but through history such deprivation has been perpetrated far too often without resulting terrorism to seriously be considered terrorism's “root cause.” But it does not follow that “the root cause of terrorism is totalitarianism.”

Mickey Kaus has formulated a more general explanation:

“In fact, there's a good argument that "welfare benefits + ethnic antagonism" is the universal recipe for an underclass with an angry, oppositional culture. The social logic is simple: Ethnic differences make it easy for those outside of, for example, French Arab neighborhoods to discriminate against those inside, and easy for those inside to resent the mainstream culture around them. Meanwhile, relatively generous welfare benefits enable those in the ethnic ghetto to stay there, stay unemployed, and seethe. Without government subsidies, they would have to overcome the prejudice against them and integrate into the mainstream working culture. Work, in this sense, is anti-terrorist medicine. (And if you work all day, there's less time to dream up ways and reasons to kill infidels.)”

In one direction Mr. Netanyahu’s theory appears to be a special case of Mr. Kaus’ theory. A modern totalitarian regime is virtually doomed to gross inefficiency, unemployment, underemployment and a servere lack of prosperity. The reasons are clear: Most of what makes a modern economy function is tied up in the free flow of information and a big role for markets, all of which is inconsistent with "totaltarianism." In addition, many of what are generally known as “human rights” (say, the right to a lawyer in a criminal case, to pick but one of many examples) are wealth enhancing for the society as a whole. Having impoverished its people and demolished its markets, such a regime will be have to put a lot of people on the dole in one form or another. Presto! One only needs to add an appropriate "ethnic antagonism" and the Kaus conditions are satisfied. The limits to this theory may be seen in a country like Singapore, where there are lots of restrictions on “human rights,” but the non-totalitarian regime (what Jean Kirkpatrick might have called an “authoritarian” regime) is careful to allow substantial freedom where the economic benefits are high and the costs to the regime’s power are seen as low.

But in the other direction Mr. Netanyahu’s theory seems wrong. Indeed, some regimes themselves are “terrorist,” a term often applied to the Nazis – which were scarcely themselves the product of totaltarianism. (Of course, whether the heavilly-state-involved pre-WWII German and Italian economies contituted "welfare" societies for the purposes of Mr. Kaus' theory deserves scrutiny. But that doesn't seem far fetched.)

Post-World War II, the steamy “permanent student” societies of Europe (which allowed young people to continue as "students" indefinitely at public expense) combined with a failure to deal with the uncomfortable memories of the fascist past to create and foster the infamous terrorist Bader- Meinhof Group and the Red Brigade in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, mostly in Germany and Italy. "An underclass with an angry, oppositional culture" can take the form of subsidised student bodies, not just frustrated pied-noires hanging out in some French public housing project. Further, the forces that created these groups have clearly not yet been fully spent, and the "ethnic antagonism" in that case took (and takes) a particularly complicated form. As one academic commentator, Ursula Duba, notes:

“[T]he anger at their parents' generation quickly turned into condemnation of imperialism in general and the US in particular. Before long, young German students were preoccupied with demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. What was missing was the confrontation with the personal history of the family and the necessary mourning for the victims of the Nazi terror. It is notable that groups like the Red Brigade and the Bader-Meinhof-Group which resorted to extreme violence in their pursuit to end imperialism, took considerable hold in both Germany and Italy, but to a much lesser degree in the other European countries which experienced similar student revolts. It is equally notable that the sixtyeighters do not talk to their own children about the Third Reich and the horrors it perpetrated and thus continue the legacy of silence.

“During the massive demonstrations in Germany in 1991 against the Gulf War, no one thought to demonstrate against the numerous German companies which had sold equipment, chemicals and technical know-how to Saddam Hussein for the manufacturing of chemical weapons - even though it was known worldwide that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians and that these weapons represented an enormous threat to Israel. To my knowledge, nobody has researched any possible connection of former Nazis among those manufacturers.”

True, the determination of the “host” democracies to extirpate these groups did eventually succeed, although at considerable costs to human and civil rights in Europe. Indeed, the European police came to understand that very strong methods were needed – methods with much in common with those now being used by Israel to deal with its own terrorism problem.

It is one more spectacular act of hypocrisy for Europeans to condemn Israel for understanding the same kinds of terrifying measures are needed in that country that were used of necessity in Europe to deal with the analogous problem. Nevertheless, Mr. Netanyahu does not advance his case by stating it without its necessary, if horrifying, nuances.

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