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Issue No. 111 (September 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor

We can respond effectively to terrorism

. . . but only if all our insights are made to count

This month is the sixth anniversary of 9/11, and politicians, policy analysts, and commentators remain deeply divided over how to respond to the looming terrorist threat.

Some Americans are beginning to simply wish the threat away. Senator Clinton may have pandered to this sentiment when she said, “I believe we are safer than we were” (quoted in Foreign Policy magazine, September / October 2007).

But a recent survey of more than 100 top foreign policy experts -- “Republicans and Democrats alike” -- is not reassuring. Over 90% say the world is becoming more dangerous for the U.S. Eighty-four percent do not believe the U.S. is winning the war on terror. Over 80% expect another major terrorist attack within a decade (Foreign Policy, September / October 2007).


How is a good person to respond to the terrorist threat?

Many of us have spent a humongous amount of time over the last six years trying to come up with the best explanation for terrorism, and the best solution.

By now, many explanations and solutions have been offered, by a wide variety of Americans. And a battle royal over those explanations and solutions continues to be fought.

The result? We’re further away from knowing what to do, as a nation, than we’ve ever been.

Many of us find it convenient to blame the Republicans or the Democrats for our stuckness. I believe the problem goes deeper.

We are so determined to argue with each other over the best explanation, the best solution, that we fail to notice that each of us has a handle on the truth about terrorism.

Terrorism speaks to some of the deepest-rooted impulses in the human psyche. How can it possibly be understood, let alone controlled, without making use of the insights and experiences of all of us, whatever our politics?

Unfortunately, nearly every institution in American life has been set up to encourage us to use our differences to struggle with one another -- for power, privilege, access, legitimacy, jobs, you name it.

With the rise of the terrorist threat, though -- a threat to our very existence -- this mode of operating is going to have to change.

Perhaps we should see the terrorist threat as a God-given invitation to restructure our institutions so that we spend our days absorbing each other’s insights and perspectives, rather than ignoring or attacking them.

If I know one thing for sure, it’s that the terrorist threat CANNOT be effectively addressed unless we engage in that broadening process.

For that reason, in the next section -- “Causes” -- I’m going to briefly share 12 diverse explanations of the terrorist phenomenon.

The authors of those explanations (however sweet they may be as individuals) characteristically conceive of their explanations as competing. And you’ll be sorely tempted to as well.

But please engage in the following thought experiment. Please think of each explanation as adding to your reservoir of knowledge.

Please embrace each explanation as if the American people were one person, and each explanation came from a different part of you.

Once you do that, my last section -- “Solutions” -- may make sense not only for you, but for the U.S. as a whole.

The solutions there follow logically, even inevitably, from the diverse explanations of terrorism that the American people have been offering. Implement ALL those solutions and we can defuse the terrorist threat.

The reason isn’t far to seek:

It is only when we listen, respectfully, to the full variety of Americans, and absorb each other’s experiences, and act on each other's wisdom, that we can begin to solve -- really solve -- the all-encompassing problems of terrorism. (And many other fundamental political problems as well.)

Listen to us now. . . .


1. Call of tribalism

Terrorism is just another phase in a long struggle in which tribalists and fundamentalists have identified modernity as the enemy, says Aryeh Neier, president of George Soros’s Open Society Institute and former director of the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. For tribalist Muslims, the World Trade Center was “the ultimate symbol” of modernity, says Neier (Washington Post, October 9, 2001).

2. Call of the Internet

The Internet spreads often enticing messages from Abu Bakr Naji, Fouad Hussein, and other Al Qaeda or pro-Al Qaeda thinkers who might never have been able to reach a fraction as many people 10 years ago, says journalist Lawrence Wright (in the New Yorker, September 11, 2006). The Internet also spreads “images of what ‘have-nots’ lack and what ‘haves’ possess,” says Dennis Ross, former chief peace negotiator in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations (in his book Statecraft, 2007).

3. Pain of injustice and intolerance

“Injustice and intolerance” are “root causes of terrorism,” says radical author and activist David Korten (in his book The Great Turning, 2006, reviewed HERE).

4. Bliss of holy war

The thought of holy war can stir the blood, says Jessica Stern, lecturer at the Kennedy School at Harvard and former Director for Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council. She quotes one terrorist she interviewed as follows: “The goal is . . . to recover our lost civilization, to recover the golden age of Islam.” After a series of such interviews she concluded, “[P]urifying the world through holy war is addictive. Holy war intensifies the boundaries between Us and Them, satisfying the inherently human longing for a clear identity and a definite purpose in life, creating a seductive state of bliss” (Stern, Terror in the Name of God, 2003).

5. Emotional response to bleak horizons

About 70% of Muslims are under age 30, and youthful Muslims are “especially subject to demagogic appeals,” says Dennis Ross (citation above). “They are impatient and dissatisfied, with few employment prospects and little expectation that life will become better. They thus have little hope, and the absence of hope feeds their twin impulses of frustration and anger.”

6. Rational response to bleak horizons

Is it really "frustration and anger" that causes militant Muslims to choose violence? According to University of Cincinnati professor Mia Bloom, militants and their organizations typically conduct what can fairly be called “cost-benefit analyses” and settle on terrorism as a “legitimate military tactic” (Bloom, Dying to Kill, 2005).

7. Epiphenomenon of displacement

“What [Bin Laden’s] recruits tended to have in common . . . was displacement,” says journalist Lawrence Wright. “Most who joined the jihad did so in a country other than the one in which they were reared. . . . Despite their accomplishments, they had little standing in the host societies where they lived. . . . [T]hey defined themselves as radical Muslims while living in the West. . . .” (Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 2006).

(Wright’s observations bring to mind a conversation I had with spiritual teacher and author David Spangler 21 years ago. “Precisely because these people [i.e., the terrorists of the mid-1980s] don’t have homes of their own, they have no investment in the concept of home,” David told me. “They may wish to reclaim their homeland. But in the present situation, not having a homeland they don’t have a sense of a need to honor the homeland of others. . . . Ultimately I feel that what the terrorist phenomenon is calling out for is a return to a deeper valuing of home and place” (New Options newsletter, January 27, 1986).)

8. Epiphenomenon of specific political grievances

Many observers would say that terrorists’ motives are less subterranean. At the 2005 New America Foundation conference on terrorism, citation above, New Yorker journalist Nir Rosen blamed terrorism in large part on U.S. support for corrupt and undemocratic Middle Eastern regimes; and University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape blamed it in large part on the stationing of U.S. troops on the Arabian peninsula.

Over the last year, books by former President Jimmy Carter (Palestine Peace Not Apartheid) and prominent foreign policy experts John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy) pinned the tail on supposedly relentless U.S. support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

9. The superpower syndrome; or, when U.S. power-and-ego rules

Robert Jay Lifton is a pioneering “psychohistorian” who taught at Yale for two decades and authored such books as Revolutionary Immortality (about the motives of atheistic revolutionaries like Mao) and Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. For many activists of my generation, Lifton’s writings helped ease our transition from traditional socialism to deeper and more original political perspectives.

In his recent book Superpower Syndrome (2003), Lifton argues that terrorism has been exacerbated by “aberrant behavior [on the part of the U.S.] that is not just random but part of a more general psychological and political constellation. That constellation -- the syndrome -- developed in the aftermath of World War II but has recently taken an extreme, world endangering form. . . . More than merely dominate, the American superpower now seeks to control history. Such cosmic ambition is accompanied by an equally vast sense of entitlement, of special dispensation to pursue its aims.”

In Lifton’s view, the events of 9/11 only hardened that sense of entitlement. They rendered us “an aggrieved superpower [emphasis his - ed.], a giant violated and made vulnerable, which no superpower can permit. Indeed, at the core of superpower syndrome lies a powerful fear of vulnerability. A superpower’s victimization brings on both a sense of humiliation and an angry desire to restore, or even extend, the boundaries of a superpower-dominated world.” Could bin Laden ask for more?

10. The cultural-left syndrome; or, when U.S. licentiousness rules

These days, Dinesh D’Souza is a chaired research scholar at the placid Hoover Institution at Stanford University. It seems like only yesterday he was inspiring young conservatives as a firebrand journalist at Dartmouth and Princeton; later he became arguably the most conservative scholar at the deeply influential American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, and author of such incendiary books as Illiberal Education and The End of Racism.

In his recent book The Enemy at Home (2007), D’Souza argues that “the cultural left has fostered a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies, especially those in the Islamic world that are being overwhelmed with this culture. In addition, the left is waging an aggressive global campaign . . . to promote secular values in non-Western cultures. This campaign has provoked a violent reaction from Muslims who believe that their most cherished beliefs and institutions are under assault.

“Further, the cultural left has routinely affirmed the most vicious prejudices about American foreign policy held by radical factions in the Muslim world, and then it has emboldened those factions to attack the U.S. with the firm conviction that ‘America deserves it’ and that they can do so with relative impunity.” Could bin Laden ask for more?

11. There is a conspiracy in this world

David Ray Griffin is one of our most prominent “process” theologians, but today he’s better known as one of our most sophisticated 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Radical academics like Princeton’s Richard Falk and University of Iowa Law School’s Burns Weston sing his praises.

In his books The New Pearl Harbor (2nd ed. 2004) and The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions (2005), Griffin offers both a “weak version” and a “strong version” of his argument. In the weak version, the Bush administration knew about the coming attack and consciously failed to prevent it (much as some say Roosevelt knew about the coming attack on Pearl Harbor and consciously failed to prevent it). In the strong version, 9/11 was at least in part an “inside job.”

I find Griffin’s 9/11 arguments unconvincing -- one of the first things you learn in law school is that a clever enough advocate can “prove” anything. But his books convey a larger message: our national leaders are not trustworthy. We are not in good hands.

12. There is evil in this world

Joel C. Rosenberg has been a prominent “communications strategist” for leaders ranging from Steve Forbes to former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but today he’s better known as the author of a series of conservative / evangelical political thrillers. The first of the bunch was The Last Jihad: A Novel (2002). It kept Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity at the edge of their seats, and it kept me at the edge of my seat.

The moral of the book is beautifully expressed by one character when he says, “The CIA and FBI and definitely the guys at State don’t properly anticipate horrible, catastrophic events because we don’t really believe in the presence of evil, the presence of a dark and wicked and nefarious spiritual dimension that drives some men to do the unthinkable. . . . I believe that evil forces drive evil men to do evil things.”

Another character drives even deeper down this road -- delivers the equivalent of David Ray Griffin’s “strong version,” so to speak -- when he says, “I’ve come to believe that there’s something supernatural at work here. . . . Unseen forces are at work -- angels and demons, powers of darkness and light -- that move quietly and mysteriously, like the wind. You can’t see wind. You can’t hear it. You can’t taste it. But it’s real.”


Now that we have a sense of the range of caring Americans’ understandings of terrorism, we can come up with solutions that -- collectively -- take all those understandings into account.

Here are 22 solutions that -- collectively -- begin to do just that.

Some are considerably more expensive than others, but none would break the bank. Many point to things we should be doing even without a terrorist threat.

What is heartening is that these solutions do not contradict one another.  In fact, they complement one another.

Which goes to prove we can solve our most difficult political problems when we accord respect to everyone’s understanding of those problems -- and then put all our shoulders to the wheel.

We do not need an ideologically driven society. We need a pragmatic and creative one that accommodates all that we know and feel.

1. Capture or kill the hardcore terrorists. There is no alternative to capturing or killing all genuine Al Qaeda operatives (see former national antiterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke’s book Defeating the Jihadists, 2004).

2. Apologize to the world for our misdeeds. David Korten (citation above) would have us publicly and collectively “acknowledge and address” our “past transgressions” with regard to imperial expansion; Dinesh D’Souza (citation above) would have us “apologize to the rest of the world” because of the “export of the vulgar and corrupting elements of our popular culture.” (Both author-activists would have us publicly acknowledge other U.S. misdeeds as well.) The Kennedy School’s Jessica Stern, citation above, basically agrees:

It is not just who they are . . . but also, at least in part, what we do. We station troops in restive regions. . . . We demand that other countries adhere to international law, but willfully and short-sightedly weaken instruments that we perceive as not advancing our current needs. . . ,. [W]e continue to let failed states fester. . . . We need to concede that some of the values Americans are known for and export worldwide include . . . the interpretation of freedom as no rules and no responsibility, and glorification of vulgarity and violence in film and music. . . . But other values at the core of the American system . . . are worth defending and reaffirming in the face of assault. The first is that every human being is inestimably valuable, whatever his race, gender, or religion.

Korten puts it well when he says, “An essential mark of maturity in both individuals and nations is the capacity to acknowledge and address all the dimensions of one’s character, both positive and negative.”

3. Diminish terrorists’ access to nuclear weapons. Many analysts would make this a near-term priority. At the 2005 New America Conference on terrorism (citation above), Charles Kupchan, international affairs professor at Georgetown and former Director of European Affairs on the National Security Council, said we can’t eliminate everyone who’d do us harm, but we can and must make it a lot harder for such people to get their hands on nukes. Among his recommendations: “stepped-up efforts to secure fissile materials in the former Soviet Union . . . and vigilant efforts to contain and shut down nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.”

4. Diminish U.S. dependence on oil. “We [should be able to] decide our policy toward Saudi Arabia, for example, based on a more measured conception of America’s national interests [than access to] cheap oil,” says economist Robert Kuttner (in American Prospect magazine, October 15, 2001). For a balanced but effective way to liberate the U.S. from oil dependence, see our article HERE.

5. Create and implement a strategy for going after terrorist financing and money laundering. Terrorist money disguises itself as regular money. So the key to a usable strategy is to increase the transparency and oversight of payments and payment systems. All operators of money transmission services should be licensed and regulated; all financial institutions should provide accurate and meaningful originator information on funds transfers; all entities that could serve as conduits for the funding of terrorism -- and that definitely includes nonprofits -- should be appropriately regulated (see Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, The Financial War on Terrorism, 2004).

6. Create and implement a “soft power” strategy. “Many official instruments of soft, or attractive, power -- public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, military-to-military contacts -- are scattered around the government with no overarching strategy or budget that even tries to integrate them,” says Joseph Nye Jr., distinguished professor at Harvard and originator of the soft-power concept. “The U.S. should develop a smart-power strategy by creating a deputy national security advisor charged with developing and implementing a more streamlined outreach plan. . . . Until Americans prioritize such a smart-power strategy, we will founder for generations in the struggle against extreme Islamist terrorism” (Nye, “A Smarter Superpower,” Foreign Policy, May / June 2007).

7. Build a first-rate intelligence service. “The U.S. still does not understand the people and political forces it seeks to contain. . . . The CIA has yet to become what its creators hoped it would be,” says New York Times reporter Tim Weiner. “To succeed, the CIA will need a new cadre of highly skilled analysts and daring officers -- men and women with the discipline and self-sacrifice of the nation’s best military officers, the cultural awareness and historical knowledge of the nation’s best diplomats, and the sense of curiosity and adventure possessed by the nation’s best foreign correspondents” (Weiner, “How to Make a Spy,” Foreign Policy, September / October 2007).

8. Build international law. Terrorism is "beyond the ability of individual nations to handle,” Patricia Mische, co-author of Toward a Human World Order (1977), told me long ago. Our most pressing need is for “international law and international institutions” (New Options newsletter, January 27, 1986).

9. Nurture confusion and dissent within Al Qaeda Inc. “Whenever and wherever possible, we should be sowing confusion and dissent among Al Qaeda and its franchises,” says Jessica Stern (citation above). “We need to become as savvy at psychological warfare as they are.”

10. Nurture jobs and an alternative “Dawa” (social safety net) in Muslim nations. Militant Islamic groups often provide “Dawa” -- social services -- to selected populations. Dennis Ross (citation above) wants the U.S. and other donors to help reformers and reforming governments provide job training, jobs, and an “alternative Dawa” in Muslim nations. Among the programs he suggests:

  • “internship programs for developing job-related skills . . . perhaps in conjunction with private companies”;
  • “specific job-producing projects promoted with the local and international private sector and NGOs”;
  • “food-distribution centers created in the most destitute areas.”

11. Prepare the homeland. “Preventing our enemies from ever turning our technology and infrastructure against us is probably an unattainable goal,” say former National Security Council staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. “There is simply too much to protect in any comprehensive way. [So] a truly strategic approach would identify the critical assets that could and should be shielded.”

The CIA has already identified the top 100 targets within the U.S., and governors have already assembled their own list of 150 primary and 180 secondary targets. But none of these targets has been shored up, “because DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] has not been able to agree internally on what [the most critical targets] are” (Benjamin and Simon, The Next Attack, 2005).

12. Prepare an “emergency constitution” for the homeland. The next terrorist attack could trigger the enactment of repressive laws that could devastate civil liberties for years to come. But would most Americans want ACLU types to be setting national policy in the wake of that attack?

Bruce Ackerman, professor of law at Yale, recently proposed a third scenario -- carefully crafting an “emergency constitution” in advance of the attack. He even suggests the contours of one in his book Before the Next Attack (2006).

13. Strengthen weak and failing states. “If the U.S. is serious about ‘draining the swamp,’ we have to find ways to strengthen weak or failing states and also to ameliorate or settle the local or regional conflicts that keep them weak,” says Dennis Ross (citation above).

14. Strengthen moderate Muslims. The U.S. can do this in two major ways, says Ross. “[F]irst, use our leverage with, for example, the Egyptian and Saudi regimes to get them to stop pressuring moderate reformers; and second, use our means and the means of others who share our interests and concerns to help empower or strengthen the hand of Muslim moderate regimes (Jordan, Morocco, Gulf Cooperation Council states) and reformers who are prepared to take on the radicals.” The RAND Corporation suggests yet another way: supporting Muslim civil society groups that advocate moderation and modernity (see RAND’s anthology The Muslim World After 9/11, Angel Rabasa et al., eds., 2004).

15. Promote political reform in Muslim nations. At the 2005 New America Foundation conference on terrorism (citation above), George Soros said, “We must foster democratic development [in Muslim nations] in order to provide legitimate avenues for dealing with grievances that otherwise might be exploited by terrorist movements.” Madeleine Albright agreed but added two provisos: (a) America shouldn’t present itself as the sole democratic model, and (b) even more important than frequent elections are rule of law and having a genuine opposition party take root.

How to promote such reform? Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon (citation above) and Dennis Ross (citation above) have all called for offering big packages of assistance that are conditioned on far-reaching political reforms. Ross put it well when he said, “Foreign assistance is a tool of statecraft that can and needs to be employed . . . with a political agenda in mind.”

16. Promote dissenting views in the White House. In his bestselling book State of Denial (2006), journalist Bob Woodward tells a cautionary tale. He tells the story of how Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel -- a decorated Army sergeant during the war in Vietnam -- repeatedly tried to get dissenting views on the war in Iraq to President Bush and his aides.

Hagel is smart, self-possessed, articulate, amiable, right-of-center. But none of that was enough; he repeatedly failed.

17. Really welcome Muslim exports. Western nations should, without delay, open their markets to Muslim exports (and other developing-nation exports), says Daniel Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “The U.S. imposes its highest trade barriers on exports that are most important to poor countries. . . . We could deliver far more ‘aid’ to poor farmers and workers [than foreign assistance could ever provide] by allowing them to sell what they produce duty-free in our market” (Washington Post, November 29, 2001).

18. Really combat poverty and injustice in the world. Many recent books provide blueprints based on “smart strategies” rather than dreamy if-onlys or backbreaking financial commitments. Among the best of them are William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden (2006), C.K. Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (2005), Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty (2005), and Joseph Stiglitz’s Making Globalization Work (2006). And don’t ignore Muhammad Yunus’s Banker to the Poor (2001).

19. Bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Some imaginative (even courageous and moving) civil-society initiatives are devoted to this; see, e.g., Seeds of Peace’s “Middle East” page HERE.

20. Bring Americans and Muslims together. Other imaginative civil-society initiatives are focused on this; see, e.g., Search for Common Ground’s “U.S. Engagement with the Global Muslim Community” page HERE.

21. Help traditional cultures in America and the Middle East learn about each other. “In a way, [cultural] conservatives are in the best position to understand why traditional [Muslim] cultures fear and hate America,” says Dinesh D’Souza (citation above). “That’s because conservatives share many of the moral concerns of traditional people. . . .

“The [cultural] right understands the implications of the erosion of traditional morality, because it has seen the consequences of that erosion in the U.S. Thus the right can play an important role in helping America and the traditional [Muslim cultures] understand one another better.”

22. Help Americans use their exposure to terrorism as a learning experience. “Terrorism is an avenue for feeling our interconnectedness with all beings,” activist and author Joanna Macy told me long ago. “It’s a vehicle for teaching Americans what it’s like to feel afraid -- which is how most people feel on this planet. . . . I think there’s going to be fear walking all the alleyways and corridors of power until we find ways of sharing the resources of our planet more justly. . . .

“I don’t know that any short-term measures against terrorists could work in the long run -- except to keep working for a more just order. That must sound very naive, but I don’t know any other way” (New Options newsletter, January 26, 1986).


Each of us -- from libertarians to socialists, from evangelicals to New Agers -- is expressing part of the truth about terrorism. If we honored everyone’s views, we could come up with a holistic and effective strategy.

Can we learn to be humble -- which is to say, can we learn to be inclusive -- before it’s too late?


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