MONTEREY, Calif. —
With regard to the belief that poverty and hopelessness spark terrorism, one can only say that many, many countries see endless years of travail of this sort without ever a terrorist group rising up. Why is it that the vast majority of those who suffer in such settings fail to take up arms and commit terrorist acts? The philosopher John Stuart Mill once articulated what he called a "method of difference" by which he held that factors — such as poverty and hopelessness — common to many areas, but leading to a particular outcome (in this case, terrorism) in only a few, should not be seen as the true causes of the phenomenon. Thus, persistent economic suffering should not be seen as a prime catalyst for terrorism.
But if the foregoing, widely accepted troika of causes of our current age of terror are all false, then what is this violent plague's true origin? In discussions over the past decade, my colleague Robert O'Connell and I have observed that the desire to prey upon the innocent is rooted deeply in human nature. From the earliest times, bush and mountain tribes, horse archers and sea peoples all perpetrated acts of symbolic violence against hapless victims in order to shock their families, and their protectors, into states of temporary inaction during plunder raids. This violence also served to intimidate the victims into paying tribute, in the hope of being left in peace later on. In one form or another over the centuries, from piracy on the high seas to steppe raiders, and on to the "business model" of numerous modern terrorist factions, the pattern persists: Symbolic violence or the threat of it, aimed at the innocent, has been used to pursue gains — material and otherwise.
To be sure, there have been terrorist organizations driven primarily by religious zeal, the Cult of the Assassins in the 13th century being the best example of the use of murder to further belief-based interests. But in the long history of violence against the innocent, the Assassins are far more the exception than the rule. No, it seems instead that terror has flourished when external conditions have allowed, not when ideas have inspired or suffering has impelled. Ideas without opportunity have always withered.