Terrorism: When knowing all the facts becomes taboo

As a rule, our society does not cheer on those who willfully ignore the information that will help them solve a problem. From a young age, children are taught to gather as many facts as possible before making a decision. Thoroughness and attention to detail are lauded in the workplace. In politics, however, these lessons are selectively applied. Too often, those who attempt to understand the motivations of anti-American terrorism are cast aside as naïve at best and disloyal at worst.

Understanding motive is an invaluable part of law enforcement. When someone is suspected of a wrongful act, one of the first steps we take is to try to find out why that person might have done it. So why does knowing all the facts suddenly become taboo when dealing with perhaps the most serious threat to our security?

If a man discovers that his wife has been unfaithful and proceeds to murder her, we do not absolve him of his moral and legal responsibility for the act. We condemn his behavior and punish it according to the law. But at the same time, we do not pretend that there was no connection between the victim’s infidelity and her husband’s crime. Recognizing the motivation behind the murder does not imply that it was justified. No one would equate acknowledgment of the circumstances leading to the act with blaming the victim or excusing the perpetrator’s behavior.

But this is exactly what takes place when we ask the very sensible question of what motivates thousands of people around the world to try to kill us. Where did this hatred originate? What exacerbates it, and what can we do to eliminate it? These are legitimate inquiries, yet earnest examination of them is discouraged. If knowing the answers to these questions will make us safer, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to seek them out? The bottom line is that shaping the facts to fit a more comforting narrative does nothing to protect us.

Part of the problem is that our elected leaders have marginalized and scorned anyone who strays from the official line on terrorism (and many other issues). Our politicians have shown little interest in understanding its root causes, and a similarly uninformed population is necessary if the government is to continue its policy of worldwide warfare. An effective way to discourage dissent is to label anyone who dares to ask, “Why do they hate us?” as suspicious – someone who’s a little too interested in what the other side has to say.

For evidence of this, look no further than the hideously named USA PATRIOT Act, which is basically a decimation of our civil liberties disguised as an antiterrorism bill. If those who support it are PATRIOTS, where does that leave those who do not? Exactly. The same tactics are applied to anyone who suggests that there is more to terrorism than vague platitudes about hating us for our freedom and prosperity. (Brief aside: if these are the terrorists’ main grievances, why aren’t free, prosperous countries like Sweden and Switzerland targeted more often?)

We are so scared of appearing sympathetic to the terrorists that we often overlook a crucial fact: that understanding them may be the key to defeating them.

Osama bin Laden himself cited the American military presence in the Middle East and deadly economic sanctions against Iraq as motivation for al-Qaeda’s attacks. The 9/11 Commission came to the same conclusion. So did Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Acknowledging this fact is not “blaming America” or saying that we “deserved” the horrific events of September 11 – it is simply stating a reality that has been confirmed time and time again. Understanding this and learning from it is not a sign of weakness – it may be the only way to ensure that those atrocities are not repeated.

It is perfectly plausible to believe that there is no justification for acts of terrorism, that those who commit them are sadistic monsters undeserving of life, and that the United States is entitled to swiftly and decisively eliminate those who threaten us.

At the same time, it is also perfectly plausible to believe that American interference abroad is a source of resentment for many people and that there is a connection between American foreign policy and the terrorists’ hatred. Many of us do, in fact, subscribe to both sets of beliefs.

History does not begin when a terrorist attack occurs. A look at the preceding policies, conflicts, and interactions can usually shed light on why someone is willing to commit an act of suicidal violence against someone he does not even know. But recognizing why the terrorists hate us does not mean endorsing that hatred or how it is acted upon. We ignore that distinction at our own peril.

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