Thursday, August 17, 2006

Getting to the Root of the "Root Cause" Fallacy

Excerpted from
Our “Grievance” Problem
Some “root-cause” talk will get you nowhere.
By Emanuele Ottolenghi

...The logic of cause and effect is at work: There is a belief that Western foreign policy in the Middle East — including, crucially, support for Israel — is the “root-cause” of Muslim grievances. These grievances must be addressed...


...Perhaps it is easier to argue that the problem (Muslim anger) has a solution (change of foreign policy), rather than recognize that our belief in rationality and our optimism about human nature are sometimes misplaced. It is a legacy of the Enlightenment that we find it so hard to deal with madness and fanaticism. We are always inclined to seek an alternative explanation: There is a cause — our policies — there is an effect — their anger — and there is a solution — our change of policy.

Western impulses to explain away the threat of terror and seek a solution to the problem are empowering in a way. We have a diagnosis and we have a cure. But they are also misleading. For why should it be logical or even understandable that Muslim anger at Western foreign policy solicits terrorism? Should anger at high taxes, inefficient health care, poor environmental standards, or disagreeable op-eds solicit “understandable” similar responses? Should we condone people blowing up airliners because they think the highest tax bracket should not be higher than, say, 30 percent? Should we “address their grievances”? By, say, lowering taxes? What if someone decides to blow up, say, the Guardian because they are fed up with the political inclination of its Comment section? Should the Guardian address their grievances by becoming right-wing? Can we not call it blackmail, instead, as it should be the case? Can we not say that differences of opinion are only legitimate when voiced in the peaceful forms amply provided by the open societies we are part of? That what makes people angry is no excuse for killing people?

The “root-cause” argument boils down to excusing the inexcusable. It also ignores the plain facts: The foiled plot to blow up airliners was not hastily planned in response to Israel’s war on Hezbollah, or U.S. and British reluctance to stop Israel. The planning began months before those events. The real cause is a totalitarian ideology that uses grievances as excuses but has goals we can never accede, if the West is to stay true to its values and beliefs, let alone interests, as an open society.

Western inability to look at evil in the face, call it for what it is, and respond to it instead of caving in to its blackmail is understandable. Evil makes little sense to us. It is irrational, illogical, and it defies our expectation that all human beings somehow must want the same things: a job, a house, a decent and peaceful life. Those who defy this logic cannot be crazy. They must be banging on the table because they have been “deprived” and “left out” of the grand bargain that our affluent society has given virtually everyone else. Give them what they want, and we will have our quiet back.

This logic is behind the fascination for Hezbollah that is gripping much of Europe’s hard Left. Their romance with the new revolutionaries is driven by their old fetishes: Hassan Nasrallah is a new Che Guevara; American hegemony and its imperialism in the Middle East must be stopped. The freedom of oppressed people must be defended. The aggressor comes from the West, not the East. Those amongst us who attack the West are not evil, just misguided. Their methods are questionable, but their cause is just. If we only indulged them in their political demands, all would be well.

Yet, this logic only leaves us exposed to the dark side of the Enlightenment, that tradition that raised the Idea of Liberty above the Life of the people it was supposed to grant Happiness and in the process murdered untold millions for its triumph. Radical Islam has been rightly labelled as fascist, not only because much of its roots lie in the West, but also because it acts like a totalitarian ideology, whose main aim is to create a new world order based on an Idea, the triumph of which justifies the murder of anyone who stands in the way and the death of million others as sacrifice to the cause. What, after all, is the difference between those who are ready to kill thousands of innocents in the name of radical Islam and, say, Cambridge historian Eric Hobsbawm — secular and Communist — who claimed once that had the triumph of Communism cost the lives of 20 million people, that would have been a fair price to pay? Life is cheap in the pursuit of a grand idea, whichever this idea happens to be. And there will always be intellectuals ready to lend their pen to obscure its true nature.

We should understand this logic. It is part of the Western intellectual heritage. Socialism is not a child of the East — it was deadly in Europe. Fascism is also a child of the West — and it also killed tens of millions across the Continent. The West tried to “address the grievances” of an angry and humiliated Germany in the 1930s. Why do we assume that “addressing grievances” is going to go differently this time?

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