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Terrorism’s Roots Lie in Economics

The roots of terrorism lie not in the mosques that stretch from western Africa to the Himalayas, but rather in refugee camps, beggar-laden streets and rubble-strewn villages where food is scarce or rotten, diseases are poorly treated and hope is reserved for the afterlife.

My travel to more than 60 countries makes it clear that economics, not religion or politics, is the source of terrorists’ power. This includes as a Jew working in Arab nations for the U.N.

Poverty and lack of meaningful choices create millions of sympathizers and supporters for the few murderers. Many of the rest just don’t care; for them the U.S. is far from their daily lives and provides no comfort.

This means a violent war on terrorism alone – without providing a better alternative for supporters will fail.

Each innocent person we kill just adds more supporters. Osama Bin Laden knows this, as he has reportedly surrounded himself with women and children in case we bomb his locations. Economic sanctions alone will breed resentment and circumvention by hurting millions already victimized.

It also means we cannot win a war in which a few of their people can kill many of ours – and where weapons of mass destruction are easy to transport and not impossible to obtain. Sixty years ago, Albert Einstein said about such weapons, “there is no secret and there is no defense.”

Terrorism experts have long known that a crude nuclear weapon or deadly chemicals or germs could eventually be smuggled into New York City, killing not 6,000 but 200,000. Even senior government officials now say we should expect more terrorist attacks. If we search every truck, disrupt every skyscraper entrance and curtail our freedoms to protect ourselves, then the terrorists will have won – we will have destroyed our way of life in order to save it.

Here is how much of the world sees us: we consume 35 percent of the world’s resources with 5 percent of the people. Our AIDS victims get excellent medicines; theirs don’t.

“Globalization” means our multinationals crowd out their local firms, creating jobless hardship. Healthcare, sanitation, education, transportation, heat, food are poor or nonexistent while we clean the plate. They measure our 6,000 dead against their millions who die destitute or sick. We feel attacked militarily; they feel attacked economically and culturally. If we had spent a fraction of the cost of one terrorism act to provide meaningful development, we would have greatly reduced our risk. Don’t we say that we are global leaders?

To beat terrorism permanently we must:

Provide a meaningful choice. Poverty as source of terrorism must be addresses. Extremists proliferate amid economic hardship. After World War II, we rebuilt Germany and Japan, having seen Hitler come to power amid a depression after World War I. we should spur better economies with joint ventures as models. For example, Jordanian farmers should grow crops shipped to Israel for processing and export. There are enough early businesses willing to take the risk. This will start to split off the terrorists from their supporters. We should offer incentives, not penalties, to companies selling to terrorists. This is foreign aid well spent.
Build coalitions based on common positive interests. Bombing coalitions are not as effective as coalitions improving regional economies. We should use the contacts of Muslims in the U.S. consider the positive response of Pakistan and India to our lifting economic sanctions. We should twin economic development and military tracks.
Assess and evaluate grievances. A major cause of emotion is not feeling heard. Many developing countries have legitimate grievances. Our taking the best cheapest minerals, including oil, at the cheapest prices, to build our infrastructure feel to many just like African Americans felt about centuries of discrimination. Fix easier problems – lacks of medicines and food – immediately. Consider harder problems collectively. Publicize preposterous grievances.
Respect the dignity of the less fortunate. Devaluing entire cultures creates anger and susceptibility to extremists. Almost all those in Afghanistan and dozens of other countries are victims too. Hitting them for the crimes of a few is unfair and will not get us the support we need. Already, we hear cries of holy war. And this is before any innocent person is killed. They love their children as much as we love ours – and will fight back.
Use other tools besides just force. Threats and troop build-ups may be important show of force but are not the most effective way to stop terrorists long-term. We cannot ferret out all terrorists in the world, and other nations will tire of this task without continual positive reinforcement. Our military will be welcomed if we commit to provide a better existence for the countries whose help we seek.
This will not succeed overnight. We must start incrementally and develop models of economic success. Would that it had started 20 years ago when the kind of disaster as the World Trade Center was first foreseen. Unless we wish our cities to become a battlefield of escalating death for ourselves, our friends and our children, we must make an investment in sustainable global development. It is the strongest weapon we have.

(Originally published in Newsday)