Terrorism: The real cause and the real solution

Richard Parncutt
March 2016, revised July 2016

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012


There are many possible causes of terrorism. Candidates include irrational thinking, victim mentality, belief in life after death, loss of religious moral authority, lack of interfaith dialogue and intercultural exchange, racism and intolerance, the rising wealth gap, consumerism, poor education, and hate speech in social media "echo chambers". But none of these points can explain why some terrorists make the "ultimate sacrifice", overcoming their strongest natural desire - the desire to live - and committing suicide. To explain that we need two things: a lot of socially shared anger, and a context in which violence appears normal. These two things have been created in recent decades, mainly in the Middle East, by state violence - perhaps better called state terrorism. The USA, supported by other Western countries, has bombed 24 countries since 1945, creating the violent context that is necessary for terrorism to emerge and thrive. The Obama administration has bombed seven predominantly Islamic countries (including drone attacks, aka death penalty without trial). No wonder some Muslims are angry. Terrorism is non-state violence in response to state violence, which is a much more serious threat. The solution is to stop US militarism - to study the foundations of pacifism and implement them.


Everyone is talking about terrorism, it seems - its causes and its solutions. But most of what I find in the media seems to be wrong, or at least misleading. Take the following ideas for example:

These points may explain the angry reactions of some Muslim fundamentalists, but they cannot explain why individuals would blow themselves up in the middle of a crowd of people, which is going a step further. A big step.

But hold on a minute. The above points suggest that terrorism is mainly associated with Islam. Is that true? Or does Islamic-inspired terrorism merely get more media attention?

In fact, most European terrorism is perpetrated by separatist groups. According to the "European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2015",

Overall, attacks specifically classified as separatist terrorism accounted for the largest proportion, followed by anarchist and left-wing attacks. France reported 50 separatist attacks, all of them in Corsica.

In the USA, terror attacks are often carried out by Latino groups and the extreme left (at least according to FBI reports). Terrorism may be associated with any religion; for example, in recent years in Burma, Buddhist terrorists have been killing Muslims. 

The above two points also suggest that terrorism is a problem of the west. That is not true, either. For every terrorist attack in the west, there may be hundreds elsewhere. In Iraq alone, since the US invasion in 2003 there has been terrorist attack about every week (Wikipedia, "Terrorist incidents in Iraq"). We should not fall into the trap of considering Western terrorism more dangerous, or Western people more important. Think of this: Every time a terrorist kills 100 people, 20 000 children die of hunger in developing countries on the same day. Which is more important, a person killed by a terrorist gun or a child who dies of hunger? The answer is hopefully obvious - both are equally important. A solution to the problem of terrorism is urgently necessary, but the problem of hunger und economic injustice is even more urgent.

Possible causes of terrorism

Why would a terrorist kill him- or herself and many others for a "higher cause"?

I am interested in victim mentality as a possible explanation. The behavior of terrorists  may correspond to typical behaviors of other people who consider themselves to be victims, in quite different situations. But can the theory of victim mentality explain why terrorists choose to end their lives, and the lives of many others, in such an extremely violent fashion?

Another possible explanation is irrational belief. Some suicide bombers evidently believe in life after death. Some even believe that all kinds of good things will happen to them after death, to reward them for killing innocent people. It might help if the rest of us stopped believing in fantasies of that kind. The Dalai Lama could help by announcing that the Buddhist concept of reincarnation has been untenable in a modern scientific viewpoint context. But that would hardly solve the terrorism problem. Religious beliefs are insufficient to explain the extreme violence of terrorist attacks. Where does the violence come from?

In search for answers, I looked in the academic literature. There I learned that the causes of terrorism are complex. We should not jump to conclusions about simple causes. Consequently, we should should not advocate simple solutions. 

All of these things are important, but I wish to argue that they are not the main point. The main point about terrorism is that it involves violence with the intention of killing large numbers of innocent people. And what is really characteristic of terrorism is the willingness to commit suicide for some kind of higher cause. 

Suicide is the ultimate form of violence, because it contradicts the strongest emotion that we have, namely the will to live. From evolutionary psychology we know that our strongest motivation is to survive ourselves, followed by the drive to save the lives of our children. For all we like to boast about our altruism, our concern for other people most definitely comes in at third place. 

The above list can explain why people become angry or depressed about their situation, and how unfair it is. The list is not sufficient to explain the murderous, suicidal aspect of terrorism. That could only be explained by an external force that is big enough to contradict our strongest emotion. What might that external force be? 

The real cause: State violence

Wikipedia offers a widely accepted definition of terrorism: it is the use of violence to achieve political, ideological or religious goals. But the everyday use of the word is more specific, in three respects:

These definitions give us a clue to a solution. The arbitrary exclusion of state violence from the definition of terrorism is a nice example of "doublespeak" and suggests that the states have something to hide: namely, that they might be the ultimate cause of the problem. The focus on killers who represent political groups is because politicians can increase their popularity, and the media can increase sales, by scare tactics: identifying and suppressing threatening groups. The focus on murderous, suicidal terrorism is simply because that is the most spectacular and threatening kind.

Anyone who doubts that the main cause of terrorism is state violence need merely look at the recent history of state violence to change their mind. The US bombed 24 countries between 1945 and 2011: China 1945-46, Korea 1950-53, China 1950-53, Guatemala 1954, Indonesia 1958, Cuba 1959-60, Guatemala 1960, Belgian Congo 1964, Guatemala 1964, Dominican Republic 1965-66, Peru 1965, Laos 1964-73, Vietnam 1961-73, Cambodia 1969-70, Guatemala 1967-69, Lebanon 1982-84, Grenada 1983-84, Libya 1986, El Salvador 1981-92, Nicaragua 1981-90, Iran 1987-88, Libya 1989, Panama 1989-90, Iraq 1991, Kuwait 1991, Somalia 1992-94, Bosnia 1995, Iran 1998, Sudan 1998, Afghanistan 1998, Yugoslavia/Serbia 1999, Afghanistan 2001, Libya 2011 (source). 

This list can also explain why terrorist attacks are increasingly being linked to Islam. During the presidency of Barak Obama alone, the US bombed no less than seven predominantly Muslim countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen (source). From 1980 to 2014, the US bombed 14 predominately Muslim countries: Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and Syria (source). Many other mainly Western countries have contributed to this senseless carnage, either by fighting themselves or by selling arms to other countries, who then go ahead and use them.

The areas in which terrorism has emerged tend to be areas that have suffered terribly as a result of foreign military interventions. For example, the USA, the UK, Australia and Poland invaded Iraq in 2003 under false pretences, ignoring a UN Security Council resolution. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed in conflicts between different political groups, much of which can be defined as terrorism. The Iraq invasion was just one of many western attacks on non-western countries. 

There is an ongoing discussion about whether the term "jihad" in Islam implies violence (armed struggle) or not. The answer seems to be: "yes and no". According to Wikipedia, jihad refers to the religious duty of Muslims to maintain their religion, and to applying oneself, struggling, persevering, or striving to serve the purposes of God on this earth. The translation "holy war" is surely exaggerated. In any case it is hypocritical to accuse Islam of being a violent religion when Christian countries have been committing so many unspeakable acts of violence against Muslim countries in recent years. Christians should read their bibles: avoiding hypocrisy is a recurrent theme in the teachings of Jesus and is still one of the main pillars of Christian thought and morality today.

The rising wealth gap is also contributing to terrorism, to be sure. That poverty is profoundly unfair in a world of steadily growing wealth is obvious, and we should not act surprised when poverty leads to profound, long-term anger. But incidences of suicidal mass murder can be more easily and directly explained by state violence than by the rising wealth gap. 

These considerations allow us to redefine terrorism. It is non-state violence in response to state violence. It follows from this definition that the best way to prevent terrorism in the long term is to reduce the amount of state violence. 

Given this background we can also reject the idea that terrorism is somehow being caused by Islamic ideas. The link between terrorism and Islam is a result of the link between state violence and Islam. The West has been causing enormous damage to Islamic countries for many years. The damage they are inflicting in return is tiny by comparison.

The role of emotion

Violent acts by national states generate enormous amounts of anger and hatred. The negative emotions then simmer away for decades before exploding somewhere, often in the form of "terrorism". Seen this way, terrorist acts are a form of revenge. Whether the terrorists are aware of it or not, they are trying to pay us back for what we did to them, or people with whom they identify.

Violence begets violence. Every time a national state uses violence for any purpose, this is the general rule that national leaders should remember. Violent solutions to international conflicts may seem to work in the short term, but in the long term they undermine global security. If you want to make the world an unsafe place for your children, violent interventions are the way to go. If you hate your children, just vote for those hawkish politicians who are promising to send in the armed forces to destroy the enemy.

The ancient Indian idea of karma may sound like hocus pocus, but from a sociological viewpoint it could be a scientific theory. The basic idea is that good intentions and good deeds produce good karma and hence future happiness. Bad intentions and bad deeds create bad karma and future suffering. The theory makes predictions that can be tested, like other scientific theories. The word karma refers to a moral principle of cause and effect, but it can also refer to emotion: good intentions and good deeds produce good emotions, which in turn cause future happiness. In psychology, emotions may act as causal links between moral causes and moral effects. People who are suffering now from the consequences of terrorism are in fact experiencing the indirect consequences of bad intentions and bad deeds - by both the terrorists themselves and the governments responsible for the military actions that ultimately lead to the emergence of terrorism. This idea applies to the millions of people in Iraq who have been suffering from the consequences of non-state terrorism since 2003, just as it applies to those hundreds of people in Belgium suffering as a result of the terrorist attacks in March 2016. 

Incidentally, the "Islamic State" would never have emerged if not for the irrational violent response of the US government to 9/11. The "war against terror" of George W. Bush and friends did exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to do. That was obvious from the start, but the US government went ahead anyway. The politicians responded emotionally; they also represented the emotions of their shocked voters. Those emotions might have promoted survival in a similar situation in an ancient world of hunter-gatherers, but in today's world, they just made matters worse. The politicians should have realised that and controlled themselves, but they did not. The rest is history, but it is affecting us now. Lest we forget.

Emotions really exist, even if you cannot see them. If they are very strong, they don't disappear of their own accord. They hang around for a long time, and there are consequences. Consider the case of two children, one who has grown up in a conflict zone and has regularly experienced violence and hatred of the worst kind, as if that were normal, and another who had a peaceful childhood and loving parents. We should not be surprised if children who grow up surrounded by violence later blow themselves up for a ridiculous cause. Nor should we be surprised if they get involved in a terrorist network that sends other people to foreign countries with the intention of carrying out suicide attacks. From this example we see the importance of recognizing the existence of emotions. My happiness and my love exist, and so do my anger, my longing, my depression, and my hate. This is as true in therapy as it is in international politics.

Another way in which violence can breed more violence is by mere imitation. Violent national states present violence as if it were a normal and acceptable way to solve problems. The hypocrisy is staggering when national states internally regard murder as the worst possible crime, but think nothing of killing large numbers of people in the context of a war. "All is fair in love and war", they say - or perhaps, "Who cares, as long as they are foreigners". These violent states, along with all of their violence, lying, and hypocrisy, then become the role models that inspire terrorists. And I am not only talking about states that are portrayed as irresponsible and violent in the media. I am also talking about the leading western states: the USA, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and so on. Even Sweden is making big piles of money out of selling arms. 

Terrorists may talk a lot about their crazy ideologies, but what actually motivates them may be much simpler. "If national states can get away with killing large numbers of my people, I will kill large numbers of their people. Or at least as many as I can, with my limited means."

The role of religion

Are Islamic ideas fanning the fires of terrorism? To answer this question, it may help to carry out a little thought experiment. 

What if the tables were turned? What if Christian countries had been relentlessly attacked by Arab countries for the past few decades? What if a series of predominantly Christian countries had descended into daily violence and chaos as a result? 

In that case we can imagine the rise of Christian terrorism. Those Christian terrorists would find plenty of support for their violent acts and intentions in Christian literature. Take this rousing hymn by Charles Wesley for example, published in 1741 and still enthusiastically sung by Church of England congregations:

Soldiers of Christ, arise,
And put your armor on,
Strong in the strength which God supplies
Through His eternal Son.
Strong in the Lord of hosts,
And in His mighty pow’r,
Who in the strength of Jesus trusts
Is more than conqueror.

This is just the first of many more or less bloodthirsty verses. The inspiration for this hymn comes from the Christian Bible, Ephesians 6:13:

Therefore, put on the complete armor of God, so that you will be able to [successfully] resist and stand your ground in the evil day [of danger], and having done everything [that the crisis demands], to stand firm [in your place, fully prepared, immovable, victorious].

Of course all of this violence can be interpreted as merely metaphorical. But the same can be said of jihad, which is essentially about the religious duty of Muslims to maintain their religion; the word jihad in Arabic means striving, applying oneself, struggling, persevering. That is no different from Wesley's "Soldiers of Christ", if you ask me.

All of which reinforces my general conclusion: Terrorism is not caused by religion. It is caused by violence, and the solution is to stop the violence.

The solution: Pacifism

How should politicians respond to terrorist attacks? Wise journalists have warned against sensationalist reactions. Terrorists are delighted when governments respond by promoting fear, increasing security, and reducing liberty. That is exactly what the terrorists want! They have achieved their goal! And if we then persecute Muslims because who knows, they might be terrorists, that is really good for Islamic terrorists, because it encourages angry Muslims to join their cause. Obviously, we should avoid sensationalism and discrimination. But merely doing that is a long way from solving the problem. 

The only sustainable solution is to embrace and apply well-known fundamental principles of rational pacifismin the long term. An effective long-term counter-terror strategy must be based on an all-encompassing theory of the ultimate causes of terrorism, of which state violence is clearly at the top of the list, followed by the rising wealth gap. We also need to talk about national and cultural accountability: being willing to admit our own mistakes and work to resolve them. 

In the case of the "Islamic State", many are now thinking that the only solution is to ruthlessly destroy it. I'm not so sure about that. The idea is similar to that of destroying al-Qaeda after 9/11, and we know how difficult and unsuccessful that was. In the current US primaries, only one candidate seems to have the faintest idea of pacifism and the urgency of applying pacifist principles to global politics - Bernie Sanders. But even he is advocating the destruction of IS - perhaps because he doubts the electorate would understand the reasoning behind a more nuanced approach. The truth is that it will be very difficult to destroy IS without creating more problems than are solved, and directly or indirectly killing large numbers of innocent people. I don't envy the military planners. We in the west should also remember that we essentially created this situation. So the difficulty of solving the problem is a kind of self-inflicted punishment.

When politicians declare after a terrorist attack on a western country that we are "at war", they are right. This is a war that we started, and its is a war that we have to stop. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, if you want to stop terrorism, you have to stop participating in it (please click on the link and watch the short video). 

Chomsky's views on this topic are well known, and in a general sense he is obviously right. So why are people ignoring him? Most of all, why are academics ignoring him - people who are in a good position to understand the issues and put right the distortions with which we are surrounded? That raises a bigger question: Why are we so good at understanding some things and so bad at understanding others? On the one hand, we are proud of our freedom of speech (which is better in the west than in Islamic countries), while on the other hand we are terrified of criticizing our own (apparently) democratically elected governments, with the aim of defending millions of innocent people. 

Who is going to speak on behalf of people living in poverty in developing countries, if we don't? They are the people who suffer most from war, terrorism, disease, climate change and so on. Whatever happened to moral courage? Or more precisely: What happened to morality? And what happened to courage?

The role of racism

This story is not over yet. The main causes of terrorism also include racism. To understand and prevent terrorism, we also have to understand and prevent racism.

When ten or a hundred people are killed by a terrorist bomb, the act of terror seems enormous. Every such act of terrorism is an unspeakable tragedy. But we have to remember that such a tragedy is small by comparison to its ultimate causes. Even 9/11, which killed 4000 people, was small by comparison to the death tolls from US military escapades in previous decades.

A terrorist attack in Paris or Brussels gets a lot of media attention, while the daily carnage in a country like Iraq is ignored. Why? The main reason is racism. The message we are being indirectly told, and many of us are taking on board, is that only white lives matter. Other lives don't.

The reason is not distance. California is further away from Europe than the Middle East, but a school shooting that kills 10 people in California can get more media attention than a war that is killing 100 000 in the Middle East.

When politicians talk about terrorism and the need to "save human lives", they are talking about white lives. If 10 or 100 Europeans are killed, it is a tragedy. What we racists forget or suppress is that if 100 000 or even 1000 000 Iraqis die, the tragedy is 10 000 times bigger. Ten thousand times! We should talk about it 10 000 times more often (cf. Iraq body count), and if we did that, the problem in Iraq would be solved. As a small bonus, there would be no more terrorist attacks in Europe.

Similarly, if 6 or 7 million children die every year in developing countries of preventable causes, we should talk about that 100 000 times more often than a typical terrorist attack. And if we had done that for the past 20 years, the problem would be solved by now.

Every human life has the same value. That is one of the foundations of human rights. It implies that 10 lives are 10 times more important than one life, and a million lives are a million times more important. The idea seems obvious, but the challenge is to put that idea into action. I may be naive, but I have not given up hope that this will one day happen.

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