Poor Excuse

Poor Excuse

Poor Excuse

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 1 2001 9:30 PM

Poor Excuse

Don't blame Third World poverty for Sept. 11. 

Since the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 mass murder declined to leave a note mentioning the "root cause" of their actions, a chorus quickly found one anyway: poverty. (The more obvious one—Islamic militants view destroying the United States as part of their historical duty—apparently has the drawback of being unsympathetic.) Here's a sample of the poor terrorist refrain. "But the end game is not eliminating terrorism. The end game is using our new global coalition to fight poverty and give hope to kids all around the world so the only option they have isn't joining some fanatical group," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif. "We need a systematic approach that helps everyone in the world … not only by catching terrorists but by addressing the root causes of terrorism, like resolving conflicts in the Middle East, addressing poverty," said William Ury of Harvard Law School. "To prevent terrorism, we must make war against poverty," proclaimed playwright Harold Pinter.

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But the biographies of the hijackers and their commanders lead to another conclusion about the economic forces behind their actions. That is, terrorism is caused by money, education, and opportunity. For example, hijacker and apparent ringleader Mohamed Atta was the son of a Cairo lawyer. He went to the University of Cairo, then did graduate work in Germany. Another hijacker, Ziad Jarrah, was born in Lebanon to, according to the Boston Globe, "a prosperous, educated family." His father is a government official, his mother a teacher. He, too, went to college in Germany. Hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi, from the United Arab Emirates, was a college student at the University of Bonn. Brothers Wail and Waleed M. Alshehri, from Saudi Arabia, sons of a businessman, were both college educated. Then there are the terrorist leaders. Osama Bin Laden is from one of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest families. The man believed to be the No. 2 in the organization, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian-born physician, from, according to the New York Times "a prosperous and prestigious family."

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.

That being poor is not a prerequisite or even a reliable indicator of a propensity to murder people was expressed in the Wall Street Journal by Saudi exile Mohammed al-Masari, a former physics professor considered by the Saudi government to be a promoter of terrorism. "Most mujahedeen [freedom fighters] in Afghanistan were from Saudi Arabia, which shows that under the cover of being relatively wealthy, the Saudis are as devoted as any other Muslims. People in the West just want to cheat themselves by saying that the problem [of Islamic fundamentalism] is purely economic."

Poverty stinks. It often means sickness, malnutrition, lousy education, and limited prospects. But if we were to magically eliminate poverty, that would not end militant Islamic terrorism. And to say that poverty explains terror is to slur those caught in terrible circumstances who choose to lead worthy lives. Does the United States fear Haitians? Few people are as circumscribed by poverty, disease, illiteracy, and corruption. But Haitians are desperately trying to get to America—not to slaughter us but to take the kinds of unpleasant jobs Americans don't want. The men of privilege and education who turned planes into bombs also murdered Leobardo Lopez Pascual. His response to poverty was to leave rural Mexico four years ago, and a wife and four children whom he hadn't seen since, to support his family by working in a kitchen on the top of the World Trade Center.

To be sure, terrorists use poverty as a kind of currency. Their people's misery helps ignite rage. The terrorists want poor foot soldiers for their own ends. Until Sept. 11, the classic model of the suicide bomber was the young man of no means and no future recruited with a promise of glory in the afterlife for killing infidels. The greatest economic boon to the Palestinian people would be a lasting peace with Israel, but the terror organizations that want Israel's elimination prefer to sell the dark glamour of martyrdom. The chorus of poverty explainers who emerged after Sept. 11 often mention how the West's sanctions against Saddam Hussein have hurt the Iraqi people and resulted in more hate toward us. But it is Saddam's choice not to take the actions that would result in lifting the sanctions. How much more convenient for him to continue to build his arsenal while blaming his people's misery on the United States.

Let's say, for a moment, the poverty explanation is right. What comes next? How does the United States eradicate poverty from corrupt regimes that despise us? Should we send in aid workers, like those now on trial for their lives in Afghanistan, their crime being to have Bibles?

In any war, it is always smart to try to understand your enemy, his motivations, his weaknesses, his goals. But the root cause of the acts of Sept. 11, and the many other terrorist murders that preceded it, is the malignant philosophy of the perpetrators and their leaders, not their income.