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A False Link Between Poverty and Terror

Should anti-poverty policies really be the first step in fighting terrorism?

March 21, 2002

Should anti-poverty policies really be the first step in fighting terrorism?

Many people in the world — and a surprising number who lead nations and shape opinion — do not recognize a simple fact: evil forces exist in the world.

So, when bad things happen — such as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — these individuals assume that the “root cause” of the assault must be poverty and ignorance.

Then, they extend their argument by insisting that such roots can be easily pulled up — if only rich nations would provide enough foreign aid to poorer countries.

Case in point: Proponents of the link between poverty and terror compare Mr. Bush’s increases of the U.S. defense budget to the amount in total foreign aid given by the world’s richest countries last year — and then fret about misplaced priorities.

Their implication could not be clearer. If the U.S. would only reallocate its defense increases to foreign aid, terrorism could be defeated.

It’s a notion that has also found voice in the anger and warnings against U. S. militarism emanating from the foreign ministries of many Western European governments.

Their joint conclusion? Poverty and social conditions are the underlying factors in breeding terrorists — and these evils cannot be defeated by military means alone.

The persistence of this peculiar idea — particularly in the face of the world’s encounters with real evil over the last 100 years — is both amazing and dangerous.

Yes, of course, the world is complex. And, yes, efforts to help poorer nations are noble — even if, unfortunately, they have done little to eliminate poverty.

But poverty in the Islamic world has as much to do with al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. as German “poverty” was a factor in Hitler’s decision to attack Poland — or Japanese “poverty” drove the Empire of the Rising Sun to attack Pearl Harbor.

The Islamic world has long been poor. It is a poverty that arises from the inability of its religious and social culture to adopt the free and competitive economic ideas of the West.

Private ownership and a free market (and not foreign aid) — backed by education and science innovation — are the only avenue to riches for nations and regions.

But Islamic poverty had nothing to do with the attacks, anyway. The terrorists who struck on 9/11 were all middle and upper-class Arabs — as are nearly all of the terrorists on the world’s “Most Wanted” lists.

Their militancy is rooted in the rise of a virulent Islamic fundamentalism. Far from impoverished, that movement has been largely funded by the incredible oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and other regional petro-millionaires.

All of this wealth bankrolls both the terrorists and a world system of religious schools that preach a new jihad — and recruit terrorism’s foot soldiers.

True, these terrorists sometimes find havens in impoverished Muslim countries. But they find aid and comfort in such countries only because the host nations’ leaders share their ideology or their funding — or both.

When you are attacked by a Hitler or a Hirohito — you must fight or succumb. When you are attacked by terrorists operating from particular countries — and sponsored by other nations — you must counterattack both the terrorists and their supporting countries.

If a nation chooses to succumb, it might then be able to attack the root cause of terrorism by increasing foreign aid.

But this would be to play a particularly bad joke on future generations. To do so, in fact, would be to increase aid in a world in which terrorists dictated the terms of such giving.

Such aid — regardless of its effects on poverty — would support terrorists and the regimes that sponsor them.

In other words, first things must come first. When a man is trying to kill you, you have to try to stop him before doing anything else.

To link the root cause of terrorism to poverty is to indulge an illusion. In the 1920s, German governments focused most of their failing efforts on correcting the country’s deep economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the Nazis were slowly — and relentlessly — beating democracy from the streets. By the early 1930s, poverty was a problem all over the industrial world. But in Germany, tyranny won. The reason wasn’t poverty.

It was the failure of the socialists and their conservative opposition to recognize a deadly menace, make common cause with each other — and prevent Hitler’s seizure of power.

Today, the United States faces an implacable band of fanatics, operating from safe-haven countries and waging religiously motivated war.

The U.S. can render such forces ineffective only by crushing them militarily — or by credibly threatening to crush them. To do this, the U.S. is arming.

There is no cheer or glory in this grim but sacred task. U.S. blood is already flowing. It is obscenity — or lunacy — to suggest that America should be handing out alms to the world instead.