'What Makes a Terrorist' and why the popular theories may be wrong

Economist Alan Krueger debunks the theory that poverty spawns terrorism.

Theories abound as to what drives people to commit acts of terrorism. They range from the simplistic ("They hate our freedom") to the more complex (modern terrorism is a continuation of longstanding religious and cultural conflicts). The most pervasive rationale on the matter, however, is that terrorism is nurtured by widespread poverty and a lack of education.

This explanation is popularly accepted across religious and party lines and in many academic circles. It is a theory as likely to be espoused by laymen as by global leaders and so-called experts. It's an idea people can easily comprehend and embrace because it means that such abhorrent acts are born from social inequality, a preventable injustice.

Supporters of that diagnosis will want to read economist Alan B. Krueger's What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, in which he posits that this assumption couldn't be more wrong. Within the parameters of Krueger's analysis, it turns out to be the "economic-deprivation-and-no-education-breeds-terrorism" theory that fails to hold water.

Krueger's book is based on a set of three lectures he gave at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2006. In it, he argues that the notion that poverty and ignorance breed terrorism is no more than an assumption lacking empirical evidence to back it up.

A review of hard data collected from various regions and continents shows that terrorists are more likely to have come from the well-educated elite of their respective countries.

"What Makes a Terrorist" brings together disparate data, such as academic studies and government reports, arraying them into a concise, accessible argument against the notion that we can defeat terrorism through aid and education. While Krueger is careful to affirm that these are useful in combating many social ills, he is adamant that terrorism is not one of them.

But Krueger, the Bendenheim professor of economics and public policy at Princeton University and an adviser to the National Counterterrorism Center, doesn't just present the data. He offers skilled analysis to show that an aggressive foreign policy based on this fallacious assumption has cost several nations dearly and also warns that continuing along this course may provoke further terrorist acts.

Using public opinion polls from the Pew Global Attitudes Project and from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Krueger argues that residents of nations with higher rates of terrorist activity who possess comparatively higher incomes and education levels are more likely to view the use of terrorism as justifiable.

According to Krueger, the polls indicate that those with at least moderate wealth and education, relative to their nations' standards, are more likely to be confident enough in their beliefs to attempt to enact political change, even through illegitimate and violent avenues.

The poor and uneducated, meanwhile, are less likely to even voice a neutral political view when asked. Simply expanding access to education without reforming content, warns Krueger, may actually have the unintended effect of promoting terrorism.

Rather than poverty and a lack of education, Krueger's research indicates that living in a society lacking in civil liberties and political rights is actually the biggest indicator of what may lie at the root of terrorism. The lack of legal and civil recourse to political woes is more likely to lead someone to terrorism than any other single factor, according to Krueger.

While Krueger's first two lectures use statistical analysis to determine which factors do or do not play a part in leading people to become terrorists, his third lecture serves as a critique of the media and politicians who exacerbate the psychological, economic, and political effects caused by terrorist acts, rather than putting them into perspective.

Krueger asserts that sen-sationalizing distant or comparatively minor acts of terrorism serves to promote societal anxiety, thereby assisting terrorists in accomplishing their goals of spreading fear and disrupting the economy.

After evaluating available evidence on the economic effects of terrorism and other destructive events such as hurricanes, Krueger reaches the conclusion that economies are only significantly affected by terrorism "if the public lets them, that is, if people and their leaders overreact." This is because "terrorism – as awful and reprehensible as it is ... leaves the bulk of the human and physical capital stock intact" in economies that are diverse and elastic enough to withstand disturbance.

Krueger advises that governments focus less on combating small-scale, isolated acts of terrorism and dedicate more resources toward preventing devastating nuclear and biological attacks.

One of the book's strengths is that Krueger is not concerned solely with Islamic fundamentalist and anti-Western terrorism. Spain and Colombia are also addressed in some detail, while Northern Ireland is referred to as the notable exception in that terrorists there are somewhat more likely to come from less affluent backgrounds.

Remaining true to the original lecture format, Krueger includes many insightful and critical questions from the audience.

The semantics of defining terrorism are also well addressed, as the line between "terrorist" and "freedom fighter" can be a thin one. Students of American history may recall, writes Krueger, that the British labeled George Washington a terrorist.

It's a question particularly relevant at the moment, given current debates as to whether certain states are engaged in civil war or terrorism, or both.

Tony Azios is an intern at the Monitor.

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