What's Wrong With Root Causes?

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There was an intriguing moment in a recent interview on CBC radio’s This Morning. Former Ontario premier Bob Rae was pontificating on the need to fight terrorism, lambasting those mushy types who wallow in thoughts about the “root causes” of terrorism rather than racing to saddle up for the battle against evil. It was all very familiar stuff, and host Michael Enright was taking it in stride.

But then, in one of those quirky comments that makes him a sometimes unpredictable, provocative interviewer, Enright mentioned he had once visited a Palestinian refugee camp and had come away thinking that if it were he living with all that hopelessness, he’d probably end up a terrorist, too.

It was a strange, disarming moment, and Rae fumbled about for a suitable response. After all, wasn’t Michael Enright doing the very thing Bob Rae was pontificating against: discussing “root causes”? Of course, if Enright had made a political point about the grievances of Palestinians being a factor in the growth of terrorism, Rae would have swatted the point aside with the usual disdain directed at anyone who dares suggest history didn’t begin on September 11.

But Enright hadn’t tried to score a political point. He’d merely reported a gut feeling he’d had, witnessing the utter despair and hopelessness in a refugee camp.

This sort of gut response could be helpful for us in trying to gain a handle on seemingly inexplicable things — like why so many people in the Middle East appear to be susceptible to the messages of a mass murderer like Bin Laden.

Strangely, though, we just don’t seem to want to hear it. The reluctance to talk about “root causes” — in fact, the rage unleashed in many commentators when the phrase is even used — is curious. I can remember back in high school history courses when it was considered good, even necessary, to understand root causes. It was part of the process of understanding what had happened historically. I even remember learning that one of the root causes of the Second World War was the huge reparations imposed on Germany by the Allies after the First World War.

Now, I can assure you my history teacher was in no way suggesting the reparations imposed on Germany should excuse the atrocities Hitler committed. The point wasn’t to let Hitler off the hook, but to understand how the seemingly reasonable people of Germany had, in large numbers, supported such a murderous tyrant.

The Allies learned a lesson from that. After the Second World War, shrewd Allied leaders realized that reparations, and the deep bitterness they had caused in the German people, were the wrong way to go and instead pumped billions of dollars into rebuilding Germany and the rest of Europe through the Marshall Plan, with very positive results. So, you could say the Allies did things better the second time around, largely by paying attention to one of the crucial “root causes” of the Second World War.

Another aspect of resisting discussion of root causes is to try to keep the scope of the discussion, whenever it does break through, as narrow as possible.

So, for instance, political scientist Clifford Orwin, writing in the National Post, disparaged talk of root causes, and went on to deny that world poverty could be a root cause. He insisted such “garden variety social problems” don’t explain the danger posed by Bin Laden.

This breathless dismissal of the suffering of well over a billion people around the world as mere “garden variety social problems” is stunning in itself. But what of its connection to terrorism?

Orwin is right that Bin Laden and his gang are well-heeled, but can we really conclude from this that extreme poverty and its hopelessness aren’t part of the package that makes some people susceptible to messages from violent extremists who appear to champion their cause? Do we really think that we in the West — who all failed to see September 11 coming — understand the world well enough to dismiss the possibility that the desperation of well over a billion people might be something that could cause us problems in the future?

Unfortunately, for many of the world’s poor, the experience of the West has been largely negative. They’ve felt the harsh impact of such western-controlled institutions as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which have used their clout to compel debt-ridden nations to redesign their economies in ways that cut wages, remove local subsidies for basic food and privatize water systems, leaving people unable to afford clean drinking water. Similarly, poor nations have been obliged to accept western-designed patent laws that leave tens of millions of victims of AIDS and other diseases unable to get access to life-saving drugs.

This western attempt to redesign the global economy along strict market lines - known as the “Washington consensus” — has come under attack by a variety of voices, including the outspoken former chief economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, who was recently awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics. It’s also been attacked, more boisterously, by the loose international coalition known as the anti-globalization movement.

If these non-violent voices are pushed aside in the wake of September 11, the danger is that some extremist forces will step into the breach, appearing to champion the cause of the world’s dispossessed. The need to give the developing world a voice and a stake in the global economy may be more important now than ever. Think of it as heading off root causes before a problem happens.

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