In Search of Root Causes

In Search of Root Causes

A certain kind of leftist just can’t help blaming American imperialism for September 11. In the search for “root causes,” their instinct to designate the United States as villain overwhelms their spirit of critical inquiry. Overlooking the perpetrators’ frank expressions of a thoroughly medieval worldview, they quickly conclude that terrorism must result from poverty and oppression. While none defend the terrorist acts of September 11, once they speak ritual words of condemnation, they move the discussion to the need to understand a somewhat overzealous response to American-sponsored injustice.

There’s an odd congruence here with the views of the big-business right. Advocates of the corporate trade agenda quickly seized on the attacks to justify everything from fast-track trade negotiations to making entrepreneurs in China pay royalties on T-shirt logos. Poverty breeds terrorism, the reasoning goes, and free trade is the solution to world poverty. The free traders’ cure for world poverty is different from that of anti-imperialists, to be sure, but their diagnosis of the terrorist disease is the same.

Some on both sides go on to accuse anyone who questions their theoretical systems of giving ideological comfort to terrorism. Noam Chomsky suggests that left intellectuals who do not join in his critique of American imperialism “increase the likelihood of further atrocities like that of Sept. 11.” Bush administration trade negotiator Robert Zoellick doesn’t go quite so far, accusing critics of trade treaties merely of “intellectual connections” with terrorists. But the breadth of Zoellick’s denunciations, lumping moderate critics of free trade with violent fundamentalists, compensates for their lack of Chomskian specificity.

For the Chomsky-Zoellick school of analysis, it matters little how well preconceived theories fit the facts about the men who crashed airliners into the World Trade Center. Engineering students living in Europe on checks from home must have been the wretched of the earth. Their yearning for theocracy was really a hunger for bread and freedom. The blame for terror falls on poverty, on an economic mechanism that impoverishes—whether the offending system is labeled “imperialism” or “protectionism” is immaterial to the argument—and ultimately on the ideology that underlies that system. For these thinkers, theory trumps reality.

Refuting such ideas is a necessary if tiresome task, and those who have undertaken it deserve attention and sympathy. Chomsky’s critics, some serious and many not, are too numerous to list. Zoellick’s ideas, too, have attracted notice, although only Alan Tonelson seems to have observed how closely his take on terrorism resembles the “anti-imperialist” view. My intention here is not to pursue those disputes, but to search for root causes of a different kind. What accounts for the persistence of such thinking? Why does it so resist refuta...

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