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9/11, Terrorism, and the Importance of Understanding Your Enemy.

Here is a song called "Long Dark Night" by one of my musical heroes: John Fogerty. I'll let you figure out what he is singing about (and how he feels about the subject).

Every once in a while, an event will take place within the United States or around the world that grabs the attention of the American people. The ultimate, recent examples of this, of course, were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. So as people sat transfixed in front of their TV screens watching 24-hour news coverage of 9/11, there was a tremendous opportunity to educate the American public. Many Americans, after all, were caught completely off guard by these events, a fact which revealed their remarkable ignorance. Who the hell were Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden? Why would they attack the United States? What is it that these terrorists were trying to accomplish?

After watching some of this news coverage and talking to many students and other Americans over the years, I have concluded that the media largely blew this teaching opportunity. In my Modern American History and World Civilizations courses, I always ask students the simple questions listed at the end of the preceding paragraph. Too often, I either hear simplistic answers or no answers at all. When I ask them about the possible motives of the various Islamic extremist groups that we generally label as terrorists, some students say that these groups are trying to convert everyone to Islam. Others say that they hate the United States because of our secular, sinful, feminist, and freedom loving culture. Others might simply say that these are crazy, evil, religious fanatics who feel that they are carrying out the will of Allah.

Now I am not going to argue that these common responses are completely wrong. The motives for terrorist attacks may vary, and many who resort to these kinds of activities probably do see the United States as a sinful, mostly non-Muslim place that deserves to be attacked. It’s also difficult to dispute the idea that a suicide bomber trying to kill as many people as possible is messed up in the head and/or evil. These simplistic explanations, however, are incomplete and therefore not particularly helpful.

My primary hope, and hopefully the goal of all Americans, is that the terrorist threat can be minimized as much as possible. I am not primarily motivated by a desire to punish terrorists or to exercise vengeance. Now to achieve this goal effectively, it is important to consider as many strategies as possible. Military action and the training of security forces may be appropriate at times, but these are not the only possible approaches. In formulating this comprehensive strategy, it is important to gain a deep understanding of your enemies. If you don’t understand your enemies, and the forces that helped to create them, you might do some things that are counterproductive.

So let’s start with the simple assumption that terrorists are evil. The next obvious question should be, “So how did they become so evil?” Are certain people just born with the evil gene that eventually leads them to become a suicide bomber? Most would argue, I hope, that people in general are not born evil (although some might be biologically inclined toward mental illness). Instead, they might eventually turn to evil acts due to the influence of their upbringing, environment, and/or other circumstances of their lives.  So what kind of an environment produces these “evildoers”? Are there things that the United States can do to alleviate the negative environmental conditions that may produce future terrorists? Are there things that the United States has done in the past (and present) that may have played a role in producing more terrorists?

Some Americans would object to this final question. Others might object to this entire line of reasoning: “If you try to describe the circumstances that are likely to produce terrorists, isn’t this a form of justifying what the terrorist has done? And if you say that the United States has made some mistakes in the past that may have incited the growth of terrorist movements, then you are essentially blaming America for terrorism. The only people to blame for a terrorist act are the terrorists themselves. It’s not our fault that they hate America. We are just culturally different from them, and they are too messed up in the head to accept this simple fact.”

I understand these objections, and I agree that terrorism is ultimately the fault of terrorists. I disagree with the notion, however, that trying to understand a terrorist is a form of justifying his or her behavior. Instead, it is merely an attempt to gather as much information as possible. It is also foolish to live under the delusion that our country has never made mistakes that had negative repercussions. Refusing to recognize mistakes will lead a nation to repeat them.

So why do some people resort to terrorist acts, and why do Islamic extremists hate the United States? There is no single answer to this question. After all, there are many different groups out there who we lump together under the term, “terrorists.” From nine years of listening to and reading the works of many experts on this subject, I think that some general statements can be made. Most importantly, Islamic extremist groups are primarily concerned with events within the Muslim world. Some are local groups trying to shape events within a particular country. Others are international organizations trying to fight a “global jihad.” Their primary complaint is that the nations of the Muslim world are generally ruled by secular, corrupt dictators who do not adhere to either the ethical or legal principles – as these extremist groups interpret them – of Islam. Their goal, then, is to topple these governments and create what they consider to be truly Muslim societies that follow the legal and social system laid out in the Koran. Some even dream of a united Islamic world with a single caliph ruling as in the days shortly after Mohammed.

So what does this have to do with the United States? In the minds of these various extremist groups, the United States has played a role in installing and/or supporting these lousy governments. And like all western nations who have meddled in the affairs of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, they have done this largely to promote American economic interests, namely secure access to oil. Their main reason, therefore, for attacking the United States is not our American culture. What they primarily object to are American political policies. The United States stands in the way of their goals. (So do they have a legitimate complaint? I would suggest that you take a look at the political makeup of the Muslim world, and the history of American actions in the region, and then make your own decision).

What is taking place in the Muslim world is basically a civil war. On one side you have the more moderate, secular Muslims who want the same things that most people want: peace, security, good jobs, family, etc. On the other side you have the Islamists who want a society based on their interpretation of the Koran. The most common victims of terrorist attacks, after all, are the moderate Muslims who constitute the majority of the population. From the beginning, the United States should have actively sought out these potential allies. This is a simple fact that has apparently been lost on many Americans. Too often, we like to understand the world in simplistic terms. Often, generic words such as “Arabs,” “Muslims,” or “terrorists” are used as if there is some single group out there that we are fighting against. By failing to recognize the complexity and divisions that exist within the Muslim world, the United States has often found itself alienating, attacking and fighting against the wrong people. The Iraq invasion, in particular, is the ultimate example of a counterproductive war. By targeting the kind of a leader that Islamic extremist groups generally hate, we essentially did Al Qaeda a favor. We took out a lousy ruler, and we created widespread anger that made it easier for terrorist recruiters.

The Iraq War shows what can happen when you misunderstand and inaccurately identify your enemy. There are signs, however, that military leaders and policy makers have grown a bit wiser over the years. Efforts have been made in Iraq and Afghanistan to find people within these countries willing to work with Americans rather than fight them. I get the sense, however, that too many efforts are still focused on trying to snuff out terrorism through brute force. Presidents, after all, whether Republican or Democrat, do not want to be labeled as soft. I just hope that our new President, as he has been stepping up military efforts in Afghanistan, recognizes that fighting is not the only way to go. The focus should be on results, not appearances of strength. Of course, we live in a democracy. And in a nation with large numbers of uninformed voters, the wisest actions might not win elections.


  1. You should take one of these long, thought-provoking posts, and consider writing a book. Or take all of them and expand them with some interviews, sort of like Malcolm Gladwell.

    There are so many things wrong with the fallout from 09/11 - so many missed opportunities. The media and the administration blew it. Imagine if we knew more about our enemies? Imagine if we had been called to sacrifice? Imagine if the media questioned the weapons of mass destruction report? Imagine if we understood the complicated politics of Iraq?

    More people should read children's books (Stay with me). All of Book 6 in the Harry Potter series is about Dumbledore teaching Harry everything he knows about Voldemort in order to defeat him. Book 5 is about not being able to trust your government when your government hides information and takes away rights in order to "protect us". I'm sure J.K.'s 5th book was influenced by the post 9/11 climate.

    While I'm sure nobody (except terrorists) condones the terrorists, if we don't understand their motives and gripes, how can we hope to defeat them?

  2. I emphasize one of your questions in my class: "Imagine if we had been called to sacrifice?" I wonder if the Iraq war would have happened if the government had not worked so hard to shield us from the cost.

    I should read the "Harry Potter" books. My wife always raves about them, and if nothing else, it will help me to relate better to my students, many of whom grew up on them. Of course, that will take time.

  3. Paul,( i am concerned with Pakistan) I agree with you on many points like majority of people of muslim states or Pakistan want security, peace, love and financial satisfaction. When motives are same, to end this game of terrorism, will not only work by confessing old mistakes done by USA.
    The need is to revitalize the trust between us. God knows educated Pakistanis understand how much USA helps Pakistan (Financially), but bitter truth is USA always choosed unpopular political powers (im not going to debate, why popular leadership becomes unpopular in Pakistan). Past mistakes are clear, things can be made better by keeping consistency in policies for decades and by making nation an ally instead of corrupt rulers. (How people of Pakistan will accept USA as friend if they have to be screened naked for security reasons on air ports and corrupt leaders of Pakistan will make corruptions in aids, financial assistance and loans.

    One of the major problem is PAK-US friendship never reached to people of Pakistan, i say this mistake as 40% of USA and 60% of Pakistani people (by choosing wrong leadership always).

    Another perspective is US global politics is USA oriented (It can be) but if you make friends, you should treat them like friends.


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