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Debunking terrorism myths

Greg Parnell | Sunday, March 21, 2004

Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah: three terrorist groups that are responsible for thousands of deaths, millions of dollars in damage and a psychological toll that is beyond measure. In the post-Sept. 11 world, it seems as if the names of terrorist groups appear just as often in the news as the names of nations themselves. Yet for all the coverage these groups receive, many Americans still have a very flawed view of what terrorism is all about. 1. Terrorists are not crazy. Perhaps the most widespread falsehood about groups such as Al-Qaeda is that their members are all crazy. Many people comment, “Whoever planned to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon must have been completely insane, for who would honestly think that killing 2,000 civilians and antagonizing the United States military would help their cause?” And, “The individuals who actually carried out the orders are even more insane, because who would commit suicide to advance a vision that they would never experience?”In reality, interviews with members of these organizations have shown that they are in perfect mental health. Terrorist plans are not put together on a psychotic whim to satisfy an urge for mass murder, but are constructed over a course of years by a group of intelligent leaders thoroughly weighing the costs and benefits. They might miscalculate at times, but so does every government, and every person for that matter. Bad decisions do not necessarily mean that a person is crazy. Those who carry out the acts themselves also think carefully about what their decisions entail. They make a conscious decision to sacrifice their lives for something they believe in. The men and women who fought the hijackers and crashed the plane into the woods of Pennsylvania died trying to protect something that they deemed to be greater than themselves. For that, we call them heroes, not lunatics. I challenge you to understand that for many, the hijackers were heroes in the same way, because they, too, were willing to die for a greater cause. 2. Terrorists are not homeless beggars who are simply brainwashed by charismatic leaders. But why would they want to commit suicide to fight America? We think, perhaps it is because they are devastated by extreme poverty and hate Americans for their luxurious lifestyle. Perhaps they are uneducated and simply do not understand the true meaning of American democracy. Or, most likely, manipulative monsters like Osama Bin Laden seek out the most weak-willed prey and gather them in as pawns for their diabolical war. The evidence suggests otherwise. Of the biographical data collected from the families of all Hezbollah members killed between 1982 and 1994, the fighters were on average more educated and less impoverished than the Lebanese citizens around them. Likewise, most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, the country boasting the most wealth and best educational system of the entire Middle East. Another study of terrorist groups from around the world showed that approximately two-thirds of the individuals associated with terrorist groups have a university degree, and well over two-thirds come from the middle or upper class of their respective society. Most terrorists fight not because they are brainwashed, but because they believe that they are fighting for a political cause. It is true that terrorist leaders use rhetoric to convince individuals to join them. However, this is no different than President Bush using rhetoric to make Americans feel that they should support a war against terrorism or in Iraq. Both situations are grounded in a political reality that demands action, and in both cases, effective leaders use emotion to motivate people to comply.3. Just because terrorists’ tactics are extreme does not mean that their causes are not just.Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare. It is waged when an individual or group knows that he cannot defeat his enemy using direct force. Since conventional war is futile but the status quo is intolerable as well, the terrorist instead attacks the “kinks in the knight’s armor” – high-profile targets like civilians – in an attempt to destroy the stronger force’s willingness to fight. Terrorism like this has existed for thousands of years, (although the targets, weapons of choice, and methods have changed) and historically, it has proven to be one of the least effective modes of effecting change. As brutal and malicious as terrorism is, it is folly to automatically assume that a terrorist’s cause is unjust. Israel has been an illegal occupier of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for almost 50 years, a situation no different than Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait or the Communists in Eastern Europe. Many years ago, the Palestinians fought back with civil disobedience: pamphlets, strikes and boycotts. Yet for decades, the Western powers have ignored the Palestinians’ plea for justice. Only in recent years, a full generation after the occupation began, have Palestinians given up on a peaceful political withdrawal and have turned to more extreme measures to get the world’s attention. I condemn terrorism as much as the next person, but I feel it extremely important that before I do, I know what it is these groups want and why they are willing to die for it. Only by understanding the terrorists’ goals and motivations will we be able to win the war against terror.

Greg Parnell is a sophomore political science and economics major. His column appears every other Monday. He can be contacted at gparnell@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.