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Basic Causes of Violence

Here we collect some findings on the root causes of terrorism. In the broad sense, it is a matter of nature, nurture, and their interplay. The genes we are born with provide the potential to a more or less degree.

We're never going to be able to solve the problem of terrorism unless we understand and try to deal with some of the reasons that turn particularly young, impressionable people to support extremist organizations."
Dame Stella Rimington -- Director-General: M15

If humanity's genes are the taproot, the summation of one's experiences govern whether or not that person actually becomes a terrorist. That summation has several aspects. For those of us having the propensity, early schooling and radicalizing experiences can tip us over the edge into suicidal terrorism.

Nature / Nurture
Natural History and Society
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Intimidation is rife in the animal kingdom, within species and between species. And of course predators prey on herbivores as well as on each other. Relatively peaceful animals are known; the Bonobos, for example, have developed peace making into a fine art, at least with each other. Nature includes both fierce and peaceful species.

Humanity can muster its intelligence fending off carnivores, other people, neighboring tribes, nations. And like carnivores, humanity can devour humanity; cannibalistic societies are known; slavery was/is common throughout history; Women are virtual slaves today in many parts of the world. War and Terrorism predated recorded history and have been part of it ever since. In these ways, humanity behaves much like our animal kindred from which we sprang. See: Natural History and Evolution for more on that. See Monotheism and Violence.

Being stronger and well endowed with testosterone, males typically dominate terror and war, but females can be savage too. So it came to be that while we are born with potential for violence from our genes, modern society may nurture and express it--or radicalize it. Albert Einstein captured the essence:

"The psychological roots of war are, in my opinion, biologically founded in the aggressive characteristics of the male creature."

Aggression is latent in our genes and finds expression in society primarily from fear, more rarely from logical thinking. Our fears include fear of carnivores, poisonous biters, disease carriers, genetic diseases, and our own human kind in their violence.

Recognizing the meaning of death, it was only natural for the early Homo sapiens to fear what the hereafter might hold. Parents used the concepts of God, Satan, Heaven, Hades, and Hell, to reassure, control, or threaten their children. Many tribes, and later societies, practiced the same procedures with their citizens. Not all did or do; Hindu and Buddhist societies do not resort to instilling fear and hatred of others. See: Monotheism and Violence.

Nevertheless, humans are born smart; this most-brainy of animals now reigns supreme over life on earth. But brains are commonly no match for emotions when parenting style is strict control with conditional affection and school systems emphasize rote learning while rewarding obedience. As a result, human societies remain animalistic in that emotional experience reigns over thoughtfulness. The Neocons even believe that violence is natural to civilization, that nothing can be done about that in the face of much evidence to the contrary.

Violence is indeed natural in the jungle or on the savanna where fierceness survives; herding instincts arose in defense. But civilization is basically an effort to rise above primitive instincts, and that means dropping the animalistic trappings such as violence and short-sighted political behavior born of Authoritarianism.

Alienation and Humiliation of peoples and "fierce" societies lead inevitably to violence. These follow from bigotry, racism, and intolerance. No amount of propaganda can achieve peace,historically, neither has aggression.

Fortunately, the US and Europe are role models for the ethnic integration process. Terror attacks not withstanding, the Western Hemisphere, Western Europe and parts of the Pacific-Rim seem to be on track toward peace. Humanity can have a happy future if we can change our basic ways of parenting, teaching and believing to be consistent with peaceful integration of all peoples on earth. Politically, this means democracy where each citizen has equal opportunities from birth and society guards those opportunities; where democratic governance minds the business of safeguarding humankind as a whole, not special interests; where faith is a private matter and not a vehicle to control others; where individuals are nurtured in such ways that they know how to think for themselves, act on their own behalf, and stand up for the consequences of their actions.

Diplomacy -- Historical Brief
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With the ending of the Cold War, much of the world breathed a huge sigh of relief. For some of the world, it was more like one superpower down [Soviet Union], two to go [Europe and America]. Until the mid Twentieth Century, Europe had played an equal or dominant role among nations. That changed with the demise of Hitler. Europe was devastated and caught in a vise between two superpowers.

The Marshall Plan, the UN, NATO, and the Common Market became stabilizing institutions. Modern Europe is united as never before, in spite of strains with the US. The Berlin Airlift and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall were decisive turning points. Economically and diplomatically, Europe now rivals America.

Meanwhile, social and political integration remained stalled in the Middle East with Islam still living in the feudal 14th Century. The European Inquisition, Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and Information Ages had no parallels in Islam beyond an archeo-inquisition against women and nonbelievers now in its second millennium and running.

Terrorism predates Islam by a millennium; it is a behavior humanity has never been free of. Too often terrorism has been effective in achieving something, at least until the powers strong enough to suppress it get fed up and do something about it. The history of the Thugs in India is just one example of the latter. Today there are some 60 organized groups engaged in terrorism worldwide.

People left behind by history in an agrarian economy often become have-not citizens in terms of mastery of nature, standard of living, equal opportunity, education, wealth, and health. Have-not status leads to feelings of alienation, rejection and humiliation. Radical mullahs preaching jihad find ready recruits among the disenfranchised. So do the secular terrorist leaders. The very real potential for Nuclear Terror demands the full attention by all societies.

The mere possibility or this situation was used to justify war on Iraq. It did not justify our lack of patience. If the possibility of nuclear terror justified war on Iraq, why does it not also justify war on Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and India. Most of these could hardly be called stable governments. What about the nuclear program Brazil is starting? Libya on its own decided to denounce weapons of mass destruction to lift the UN sanctions it has suffered under.

The high irony is that we recently chased ghosts in Iraq while Pakistan was exporting nuclear technology to other unstable states. When discovered, Musharref pardoned the "traitor" and received US congratulations on plugging the leak, if indeed it is plugged. Musharref took power in a coup, not at all a reassuring feature. He made a decision consistent with Islamic ascendancy, not for the safety of all humankind.

Playing the tactical game of supporting this dictator or that leaves us vulnerable--today's ally may become tomorrow's enemy and vice versa.

We should start being straight up about the nuclear issue, but be patient enough not to rock the boat and make things worse as we may well have done in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Strategic diplomacy geared toward lasting peace must replace tactical opportunism.

Religious Aspects
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Islam has been described by some as a warrior religion. Many Muslims, however, bristle at such thoughts. Nevertheless, reading the Qur'an, violence and conflict are frequently mentioned while love virtually never is. From the days of the Caliphate to our present times, Islam has laid claim to all governance of society, first via the Caliphate, then by one Islamic sect or another. Islamic governance survives to this day, Iran being a prime example. Unfortunately, extremists and dictators have hijacked Islam in their own interests, bin Laden, mullah Omar's Taliban, and the Wahhabis being contemporary examples.

Many Muslims dream of the formation of a new and just Caliphate and such dreams have been mentioned by contemporary terrorists as one of their personal motivations. This is the authoritarian view at its highest expression. Except for the religious aspect, Neocons also dream of one world governed by their very own superpower with a headmaster selected from the "elite" as Plato would have it.

Sayyid Qutb, the American-trained Egyptian philosopher whom Nasser finally put to death provides the religious justification for today's Islamic terrorism. Muhammed Qutb, Sayyid's brother, is a distinguished scholar of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Significantly, bin Laden studied under Muhammed Qutb, who likely contributed to bin Laden's radicalization.

Sayyid Qutb wanted many things in the here and now. He wanted the Islamic vanguard to:

  • live according to pious Muslim principles,
  • engage in the lifelong study of the Qur'an
  • accept the obligations of "jihad", the struggle for Islam. [Neocons proclaim the right to make war unilaterally. An armed clash became inevitable once they gained power.]

Sayyid Qutb was a gifted writer; his most influential works, a five volume set, "In the Shade of the Qur'an" was written while in prison. It provides the philosophical underpinnings for al Qa'ida and similar movements. Sayyid Qutb gave Islamic terrorists reason for martyrdom. To him, death, wisdom, piety and immortality are all the same.

This problem is not one for Islam alone. History, scholars, and our own research agree that there is a connection between religion and terror (violence), provided the religion is a Monotheism. Monotheists believe with passion that there is only one god. Christianity, for example, is associated with violence in our times, in Bosnia, North Ireland and in Rwanda. Judaism with its Zionism has become a festering sore in the side of peace in Palestine. The Eastern religions and philosophies do not seem to be so fervent or in conflict. But then they are not authoritarian in nature, and neither are the atheists.

And of course each monotheism is convinced that its God is THE God. The God of Abraham, is not the God of Jesus, and neither of these is the God of Mohammed. The current culture wars find the three primary versions of God in mortal combat. In terms of violence, the association of violence with God in modern societies is 30-40 times that of atheism in our times. (The balance of terror was different in the time of Stalin, if you choose to call his motive pure atheism. We don't. Stalin was an extreme case of an authoritarian personality, as was Hitler. Stalin's Communism had many of the trappings of a religion. Hitler, however, at least gave lip service to Christianity. Each practiced state terror and genocide.)

Authoritarianism -- Social Aspects
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The German population devoutly followed Hitler in his madness, most particularly the youth. Postwar analyses (mainly by Adorno) of this phenomenon defined some critical features of the so-called "Authoritarian Personality". The personality type was actually defined by Hitler himself in "Mein Kampf" as he described the Jewish personality. That was pure racism, but the fact that he saw the main features so clearly, is consistent with the fact that he, too, shared the personality type. He was projecting his own views upon the Jews!

According to Adorno, Authoritarian Personality is commonly expressed by:

  • Excessive conformity,
  • Submissiveness to authority,
  • Intolerance,
  • Insecurity,
  • Superstition, and
  • Rigid, stereotyped thought patterns.

Superstition was evident when bin Laden mentioned omens that he interpreted as supporting the rightness of his ways on tapes after 9/11. Mr Bush demands conformity and submissiveness, and his rigid political positions reflect stereotyped thought patterns. In that sense he is like bin Laden himself. There is one huge difference: bin Laden may be well on his way to becoming a Prophet, thanks in large part to Mr. Bush's fear mongering in Iraq, instead of paying attention to business and policing bin Laden out of existence as the British banished the Thugs.

Islamic culture parallels this Hitlerian model, most notably in its requirement for total submission to Allah [or Der Fuehrer, Stalin, President, etc.], discrimination against women, and, to a lessor extent, non-Muslims. Such people see the world as a bleak "black and white" place to live. Islam is nothing if not rigid and stereotyped, even as its two main sects and its more extreme splinter groups disagree over the details. Moderate Islam believes in peace as moderate Christians and Jews do. None is in ascendancy at this time.

When societies assume the behavior of such individuals, the society becomes authoritarian in its expression. Christianity today is no way immune. Especially in the US this is so; our society fosters Authoritarianism in spite of prima-facie evidence that there are better ways if peace is our objective. That we remain Authoritarian in behavior means we have not yet evolved as a society where self interest of the individual (read nation as well) gives way to the good of the greater whole. This feature not only results in economic conquest and war but extends to our progligate use of non-renewable energy and our rape of the environment. Of course we are not alone in all that, we are just the major offenders.

Authoritarian personalities result from an upbringing of rigid discipline and conditional affection. (Adorno et al. The Authoritarian Personality, 1950). In this way too, Islam, being all about behavior, fosters the authoritarian personality. So does Judaism, for the same reason. Christianity has had its share of authoritarians throughout history to which the Crusades and Inquisition attest.

Adorno's discovery of a connection between Racism/Fascism and the authoritarian parenting style led him to propose a psychodynamic framework that may be described as follows:

"While finding comfort in the identification of submissive behavior towards authority, the authoritarian person directs his/her aggression towards other groups, often racial minorities. This is an attempt to relieve the feeling of personal weakness with a search for absolute answers and strengths in the outside world."

Adorno's description has been confirmed. Stanley Milgram performed some famous experiments that illustrate that ordinary Americans will readily and blindly obey orders to induce pain and presumably even death on others given certain but ordinary circumstances. Milgram found that 65% of his subjects were willing to inflict extreme pain on others in response to the most trivial authority. Other studies following Milgram's indicated that women and children selected more randomly are even more willing to follow instructions than Milgram's male volunteers in New Haven. So the 65% number may well be low, the real number could be perhaps as high as 80%.

This is unsettling. Like Hitler's Germans, most Americans seem to have Authoritarian personalities. No doubt the situation the world over is similar. The wonder is that there are not more terrorists. The conclusion must be that authoritarianism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for producing terrorists.

Society makes the difference. Authoritarian personalities are particularly prone to being radicalized during the teen years or even before. Many radical mullahs are there to see that happens. The more developed societies are better at avoiding such early indoctrination, but not completely; America had its Timothy McVeigh who was an archetypal authoritarian personality radicalized by his army experience. America also has a self-proclaimed "War President" whose guiding motto is "You are with us or against us."

See Suicide Terrorism and Milgram for more on the connection between violence and the authoritarian personality. Milgram illustrated the origin of Adorno's findings. Altemeyer and Dean describe the dangers inherent in politics while Stout brings the problem home to the psyche where much of the problem lies.

Repression -- Psychological Aspects
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Societal suppression of instinctive and natural tendencies and urges have the effect of making them even stronger than nature intended. This phenomenon is classical psychological repression where personality features have gone so deeply underground in a person's psyche that their owner is unaware of their existence. Both women and men live with psychological repression; it is very common.

Repressed feelings invariably alter outward behavior. Such events happen most often during childhood, too frequently in response to an abusive parent or sibling. Successful coping mechanisms go on autopilot with time and become habitual responses, their points of origin forgotten. The common result is that many of us carry hang-ups [defense mechanisms in psychological parlance] for the rest of our lives unless we realize their existence and do something about them. This comes about because the human mind is enormously resilient; it finds means to cope when dealing with threats.

A problem arises, when behaviors learned early no longer fit the situations faced in later adult life. Behavior effective in dealing with the school-yard bully may not work well later on with one's spouse or supervisor at work, for example. Many terrorists and world leaders exhibit behaviors consistent with hang-ups that amount to authoritarian personalities. Psychologically, the consequence is that conflicts arise among them, and the societies they represent. Being psychological in nature does not excuse the violence, but it shows in sharp relief, the fundamental cause of violence in today's world. In large measure, we still raise our children to follow the laws of the jungle and savanna instead of being self-actualized thinkers.

Hang-ups from repression respect no religion, ethnicity, or station in life. Bin Laden acts in ways parallel to Mr. Bush in that they both see a world only in black and white, either / or, terms. Each eagerly employs violence to achieve his ends. And each is absolutely sure he is right. Ironically, each is seen as a savior by others [minorities] in their respective cultures. This looks for all the world like a recipe for disaster. If this seems like Authoritarians have largely taken over diplomacy among the monotheisms, it has indeed. A polarized world will not be the better for it.

Peaceful solutions, to be effective, must remove inequalities by integration as so aptly described by Varshney, in response to the alienation and humiliation illustrated ably by Stern. These people did their research among the participants, not as distant bystanders. To be lasting, each new generation must slough off its authoritarian trappings and embrace dialogue, life-long learning, and team play in the absence of bigotry in any of its forms.

Economics -- Gap Aspects
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There is disagreement over how important Economic Gaps are to terrorism. Our view is that economics is dependent on the anthropological factors outlined above. As such, economics can be a factor for several reasons:

  • Have-not-cultures envy the quality of life that the have-cultures enjoy. This is a product of the economic gap that continues to become ever more extreme. The social rigidity is in large measure responsible for the demise of Islamic nations over the last 700 years.
  • Have-not peoples can rarely aspire to the riches and ease of life of those born into position and privilege. How can they? Poor people tend to raise poor children in the absence of equal opportunity and education.
  • Have-not people are often victimized by colonial powers either in fact or by perception. War in Iraq adds to this perception. They are often humiliated beyond belief, as in Palestine.
  • Communications have opened the living rooms of the have nations to the have-nots, making the comparisons between cultures vivid indeed. Television, radio, and the Internet have brought Modernism into conflict with feudalism.

These factors often exist in many places that are peaceful, the very poorest and very richest for example. So the economic gap can only be one of many excuses terrorist leaders use to rationalize their beliefs and radicalize the next generation. The pattern is clear, terrorist leaders come from the middle and upper economic classes, while suicide bombers come from the poor classes. Martyrdom has more to offer than a continued humiliating existence. Given so little to live for, it should be no surprise that members of such societies would be willing to die in efforts to better their lot.

In sum, the above produce societies with no real hope of enjoying the richness and security enjoyed by the more advanced nations. The rub comes when each side seems determined to keep it that way.

Summary -- Conclusions
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Some primary roots of terrorism may be found in:

  • Genetics -- inherited predisposition for violence expressed mostly by authoritarian personalities,
  • Culture -- historical precedents for terror, rigid societies lagging behind modernization even as they use the modern tools, inter-cultural disparities lead to failures in diplomacy.
  • Religion -- Islam, for example, glorifies martyrdom, resists separation of church and state, keeps women in virtual bondage by methods familiar in Inquisition history, actively teaches authoritarian precepts. Judaism allowed Zionism, which has had effects all out of proportion to the population of the region. Christianity stood idly by or participated in genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, violence in Northern Ireland. Monotheism correlates strongly with violence when compared with the Eastern religions and philosophies.
  • Socially -- authoritarian personality (Islam sets authoritarian tone during formative years; radical mullahs feast on the already vulnerable, while the Bush Administration responds with promises and ultimatums it does not or cannot keep,
  • Psychology -- authoritarian personalities can be aggravated by hang-ups developed at very young ages when individuals must cope with threats from others; Authoritarianism is not entirely a genetic issue; one's environment is also important. In this feature there is hope, with little difference in genetic tendencies, Tokyo has found ways to be multiples less violent than Washington DC or Baltimore, and so has Honolulu and El Paso.
  • Economics -- gap between rich and poor provides both real and superficial motivation. Economics cannot be the only motivator, even as it seems to be a high level one; most terrorists are from the "middle classes" in poor and still-developing nations. The suicide bombers are mostly the young, from the poorest and most deprived classes.

The personal lives of terrorists undoubtedly provide additional motivation to individuals. The total picture is not simple. None of the above, alone, is enough to ignite terror worldwide. Together, these several factors with other yet ill-defined features, make terrorism inevitable.

Going to war against Saddam Hussein had only one justification, genocide. It failed to eradicate terrorism; a lesson Israel seemingly has yet to learn. In fact, terror attacks in Iraq are now multiple and daily events and increasing, year over year. Continuing the present course, it is only straightforward to imagine a second Palestine with an Iraqi flavor as long as America has a presence in the Middle East.

America is a generous nation, especially to Israel, but our generosity is much too selective to damp down the feelings of rejection and humiliation that Israeli policies foster. Blind to Zionism that still burns brightly, we ignore the problem of a displaced people who still remember living in homes within what is now Israel. They also know what living in squalid refugee camps is all about. As a result, American policy, to the Islamic mind, is captive to Israel.

Looking Ahead, including substance beyond this page

With its broadly based origins, terror requires broadly based solutions. A limited-concept war in Iraq will not do it.

Eliminating terrorism, regardless of ethnicity or faith, requires:

  • equal opportunity for education and lifestyle for all individuals.
  • societies guarding against radicalization by teaching youth to think for themselves in open-minded ways with rigorous logic, with emphasis on individual psychology, group dynamics, international relations, and natural and human history.
  • detailed integrative police, political, social, economic, and actions that are persistent and cooperative all over the world.
  • strengthening the economic sectors of all nations [Iraq is a huge waste of capital], while reducing the gap in opportunities.
  • reforming the UN by making it a true democracy of nations with enhanced peacekeeping powers; it requires our full support in the meantime.
  • freeing women to achieve their individual destinies with equal opportunities, freeing men to be comfortable with that.
  • strengthening the separation of church and state in all nations while guarding the rights of each individual to believe as s/he sees fit and feels comfortable with.
  • putting all things nuclear under a strengthened UN control.

Current American policies go opposite to all these basic requirements.

Meanwhile, we can only support our loyal American men and women on the firing lines, firing lines that are vague, ephemeral, and not always what they seem. Enemy fire, terrorist fire, friendly fire, and accidents each take lives with equal finality. Death can come from any direction. As of Nov 2003, more Americans died after the so-called end of the war than during it.


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