The answer to the title question is multifaceted. I write this post because I am concerned with truth and I feel compelled to argue for its behalf. I also write because I can’t stop thinking about the topic of motivation(s). But mostly, I write this because I had an incredulous experience yesterday that has left me perplexed and I want to address it as well as the source of that incredulity.
My first day at a think tank internship was yesterday. During the course of editing a critique on new counterterrorism training guidelines it became evident that people still see this “War on Terror” as solely religiously motivated. There are still intelligent, American policy makers who completely discount the stated political motivations by Osama bin Laden (OBL) for 9/11. These individuals attribute the attack to a fundamental antagonism towards the West within Islam itself, and not as the complicated, multifaceted conflict that it is.
The objection I read in this report was that the so-called political motivations stated by OBL and his affiliates, and those Americans who cite them as the former’s rationale, are examples of flawed argumentation. It couldn’t possibly be because the U.S. has troops in Saudi Arabia; the million civilian deaths caused by the U.S. during the first Gulf War (most of them the result of economic sanctions after the war); and the one-sided U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In short, U.S. foreign policy cannot be the reason we were attacked. The rationale behind this line of reasoning, I have often heard, is that, “we have engaged in unpopular foreign policy in other countries and they don’t respond this way.” But is this line of reasoning really any less flawed?
Let’s imagine a playground. During recess, a bully goes around beating up kids and taking their lunch money. The first nine children take the beating and lose their money. However, the tenth child refuses to be pushed around and fights back, blackening the eye of the bully. The fight is interrupted and both children are sent to the principal’s office. This principal naturally asks the second child, “Why did you blacken the eye of your classmate?” To which, he responds, “Because he was trying to bully me and take my lunch money, like he did the other kids.”
This isn’t a difficult situation to understand; it makes sense and there’s a part of us that not only understands the second child’s motivations but also are proud of him for standing up for himself. Regardless, various U.S. officials discount this simple logic. For them, the second child couldn’t have beaten up the bully because none of the other nine children responded that way. No, instead it must be something else… and they conclude it must be this child’s religious background. Now, the geopolitical reality in which the world finds itself is infinitely more complex than the described scenario; however, the stated cause and effect of the aggressor in the scenario and of OBL and AQ are identical, and the U.S. ignores this at its own peril. Attributing speculative causes to the “real” motivation not only commits a number of formal logical fallacies but it commits another irresponsible and unreasonable action, one that will cost the U.S. in many ways. And it is simply disheartening that policy makers and other intelligent people still think this way.