Last week, I wrote about the resignation of William Arkin, an American reporter who left his post at NBC and MSNBC because of his disappointment with their journalistic standards. His problem is not just with his employers; he believes that American journalism as a whole is in a state of crisis.
But he also expressed concern about the state of the world – and about the state of American political discourse. In particular, he is concerned about what people are saying war and conflict – because that is his specialist area: he is a a military affairs analyst.
And one subject he homes in on is terrorism. He mentions it three times in his resignation letter.
First, he speaks of how he “spoke up about the absence of any sort of strategy for actually defeating terrorism.”
Second, he makes the point that “terrorists will never be defeated until we better understand why they are driven to fighting.”
And third, he tells us that he is writing a novel, one that meditates on the question of how to understand terrorists in a different way.”
These are all closely related, since understanding terrorists, and in particular, why they are driven to fighting – in other words, their motives, is the key to defeating terrorism.
Understanding people’s motivations
And this brings us to the matter of how terrorists think, and the things that drive them to do the things they do. In America, and in the west in general, I think that people have given very little attention to that.
In fact, there is little secret about the motivations of those who were involved in the 9/11 attacks that spurred America’s modern war on terrorism. Osama bin Laden, who was the leader at the time, spoke quite openly about his motives.
One can read about what bin Laden said in many places, but the place I am going to turn to is an extraordinary article, written a few weeks ago, entitled “What if Osama bin Laden Had Legitimate Grievances?”
What makes this article extraordinary is that it was written by Major Danny Sjursen, a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point, who has served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article is not long, so I’ll just quote the whole thing.
“You’re not supposed to utter these words, but what the heck: Osama bin Laden had a point. No, his grievances, as well as those of his followers and sympathizers, didn’t excuse the mass murder of 9/11—not by a long shot. After all, I am a native New Yorker whose family and neighborhood were directly touched by the horror of those inexcusable attacks. Still, more than 17 years after the attacks on the Pentagon and twin towers, it’s worth reflecting on bin Laden’s motives and discussing the stark fact that the United States government has made no moves to address his gripes.
Now is as good a time as any. The U.S. military remains mired in wars across the Greater Middle East that have now entered their 18th year. The cost: $5.9 trillion, 7,000 dead American soldiers, at least 480,000 locals killed and 21 million refugees created. The outcome: more instability, more violence, more global terror attacks and a U.S. reputation ruined for at least a generation in the Islamic world.
Need proof? Consider the regular polling that indicates that the U.S. is considered the greatest threat to world peace. Not China, Russia, Iran or even North Korea. The United States of America.
Why, exactly, is the U.S. so unpopular, from West Africa to South Asia? This can be explained in part by the mere presence—sustained, at that—of U.S. troops in the region. As a historian, I can assure you that folks don’t usually take well to being occupied. Nevertheless, it’s more than that. And here’s the rub: Washington, unwilling to even consider the grievances bin Laden and his acolytes clearly communicated, has instead doubled down on militarism in the region—thereby turning al-Qaida’s fringe complaints into a mainstream sense of injustice throughout the Muslim world.”.
The key words there are, of course:
“it’s worth reflecting on bin Laden’s motives and discussing the stark fact that the United States government has made no moves to address his gripes.”
Osama bin Laden’s gripes
“Let’s review the three core grievances in bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa—essentially a declaration of war—against the U.S., and then look over Washington’s contemporary policies on the issues:
1. Bin Laden objected to the presence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia specifically and across the region more generally, due to their proximity to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Furthermore, bin Laden criticized the U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia’s despotic royal regime.
But rather than pull its troops “offshore,” the U.S. military has expanded its empire of bases, both in the Mideast and throughout the world. Despite the slaughter in Yemen and the murder of a Washington Post journalist, Washington still inflexibly backs the Saudi monarchy. The U.S. has even negotiated record arms contracts with the kingdom, to the tune of $110 billion. Clearly, Washington has only doubled down on this front.
2. The al-Qaida chief lamented the starvation blockade that the West—led by Washington—imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. Make no mistake: Saddam was no friend of bin Laden—in fact, they were mortal enemies. But the well-reported deaths of some 500,000 Iraqi children, victims of the sanctions during that period, are what motivated bin Laden’s concern. The blockade was so hard and its civilian toll so gruesome that the United Nations aid chief, Denis Halliday, resigned in protest in 1998. Optically, the U.S. government response came across as both coarse and callous. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked in a “60 Minutes” interview in 1996 whether the price of a half-million dead children was worth the benefits of the sanctions, she cold-heartedly replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”
Today, in addition to the unwarranted 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which caused at least another 200,000 civilian casualties, the U.S. is complicit in a new blockade, this one imposed by Washington’s Saudi allies in Yemen. Recent reports indicate that some 85,000 Yemeni children have already starved to death in the 3–year-old war on the poorest Arab country. Undeterred, the U.S. continues to provide munitions, intelligence and in-flight refueling to the Saudi military. This veritable war crime has galvanized an increasing anti-American regional public just as intensely as the 1990’s sanctions on Iraq once did.
3. Bin Laden, like many global Muslims, felt sympathy for the generations-long plight of the occupied Palestinians and abhorred America’s one-sided support for Israel’s military and governing apparatus. The U.S. has been almost alone in its willingness to flout international law, U.N. resolutions and a basic sense of humanity in its backing of Israel since 1948.
Here again, nothing has changed. Washington has simply doubled down. Israel remains the principal recipient of U.S. military aid, with almost no strings attached. U.S. media and Washington policymakers rarely mention the slaughter of mostly unarmed Palestinian demonstrators protesting along the Gaza fence line in the past eight months. The results have been striking: 5,800 wounded and at least 180 killed since March. American mainstream media may not take much note of this, but guess who does? A couple of million Muslim citizens worldwide. In fact, the ongoing protests kicked off partly in response to President Trump’s near unilateral decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that essentially announced that in American eyes, the Holy City belongs to the Jews alone.”
Why listen to a terrorist?
And Danny Sjursen concludes:
“The reasons behind American intransigence and obtuseness in Mideast affairs should come as no surprise. The U.S. is a nation built on a millenarian, exceptionalist ideology and has long been driven by a mission to spread its message across the globe. A populace—and government—infused with these ideas is unlikely to demonstrate the humility to take a proverbial look in the mirror and admit fault. This became especially unlikely in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when passions reached a fever pitch and chauvinistic nationalism became the name of the game. Even then, however, credible voices questioned America’s rush to war, including scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, and even comedians like Bill Maher.
Seventeen years into the nation’s longest war, there are plenty of crucial reasons to review bin Laden’s grievances, consider his arguments and show the strength of character to acquiesce on certain points. This is sobriety, not surrender. After all, self-awareness is a sign of strength and maturity in nations, as well as in individuals.
After years of counterproductive U.S. policies and Mideast interventions, the nation is left with a stark choice: admit error and alter policy, or wage an indefinite worldwide war on a significant portion of the Islamic population. The former option would lessen violence and ultimately lead to a safer homeland, but it would require confronting an uncomfortable truth that most Americans simply can’t face: Bin Laden was a monster, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong on all fronts.”
The wisdom of Solomon
So – Americans have generally been slow, or even unwilling, to think about the motives of bin Laden and other terrorists. However, in being unwilling to think about motives, and trying to understand how people think, and what drives them – modern Americans are not unique. Pretty much everyone is like that – it is a universal human characteristic. We are, in general, very slow to try to put ourselves in other peoples shoes. But to do so is a mark of real wisdom – the sort of wisdom that governments need, if they are really serious about dealing with terrorism.
However, rulers don’t always have the wisdom that they need. Which brings me to the matter of the wisdom of Solomon. The wisdom of Solomon has become proverbial. And yet the Bible only gives one example of the wisdom of Solomon; the case of two women arguing over a baby.
“Then two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, “Oh, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house, and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. And we were alone. There was no one else with us in the house; only we two were in the house.
And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. And she arose at midnight and took my son from beside me, while your servant slept, and laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my child, behold, he was dead. But when I looked at him closely in the morning, behold, he was not the child that I had borne.”
But the other woman said, “No, the living child is mine, and the dead child is yours.”
The first said, “No, the dead child is yours, and the living child is mine.” Thus they spoke before the king.
Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; and the other says, ‘No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.'”
And the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king.
And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.”
Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.”
But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.”
Then the king answered and said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother.”
And all Israel heard of the judgement that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.
(I Kings 3:16-28)
What was it that enabled Solomon to decide the case correctly? His understanding of human motivation. It occurred to him to think about what would motivate the two women, and how they would respond to a particular suggestion. Nobody else present thought of that. But he understood human motivation, and how people react to certain things.
It is an interesting irony that Reheboam, Solomon’s son and successor as king, managed to lose most of his kingdom early in his reign (see I Kings 12), by (wait for it) failing to understand human motivation. He thought that the way to win was to be strong, tough, and uncompromising with people who had a grievance. It backfired spectacularly.
It seems to me that if the west is serious about terrorism, they would be wise to think about what Major Danny Sjursen says, and about what motivates terrorists.
They would also be wise to consider the actions of Solomon and Reheboam – and the fate of the latter.