The root cause

On April 16 2007  a solitary gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, killed 32 of his fellow students at Virginia Tech, and injured many more .  This came to mind again as I was listening to Radio 4’s Any Questions last Friday, when a questioner referring to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai asked whether we could ever put a stop to extremist violence.  In the subsequent debate difference of opinion began to appear between the panellists who spoke about the need for security and intelligence gathering and military operation, and Caroline Lucas of the Green Party who insisted that terrorism could never be ended by these means, and said several times that we needed to get to the root cause of the problem.  In starting to identify these root causes she mentioned the Palestinian situation, and the widespread feeling among Muslims that the so-called war on terror was really a war of the West against Islam.  (You can check the detail by going to the BBC i-player: .)

Nobody is going to quarrel with the idea of getting to the root cause of something undesirable, and in some circumstances it seems easy to identify both the relevant cause and strategies for tackling it.  For instance, we may to some extent keep malaria at bay by distributing nets and medications, but it would be much better if we could just eradicate mosquitoes.  However, there are problems about applying this approach more generally – especially to matters as complex as religious or political extremism and terrorism.

What would we have to get rid of to eliminate extremist terrorism?  To start with, you don’t have to know very much about human nature to know that there is a limit – a severe limit – to the connection between the real causes of people’s actions and the justifications they offer for them.  As a social species we are endlessly ingenious in devising ways to present our self-interested actions in ways that will make others like and approve of us, or at least sympathize with us.   That was what Cho did, in the fat manifesto he sent to CNN.  Like other terrorists, he listed his grievances (about "rich kids", "debauchery", and "deceitful charlatans"), referred to as martyrs people he chose to regard as similarly motivated (the Columbine gunmen), and blamed the society he was planning to attack for what he would do. "You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today…  But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off."  Nobody thinks that attempts to act on these hundred million chances, even if we had known what they were, would have prevented what happened.

But even if some action in line with Cho’s imaginary demands would really have prevented what happened – even if his justification had really been the cause – it is most unlikely that anyone would have seen the failure to act on those demands as ‘the root cause’ of the massacre.  When people pick out from complex situations the elements they refer to as root causes, what they are always doing is identifying the elements they think ought to be changed.  (In Cho’s case it was decided that the root cause was his history of mental illness.)   Similarly, Caroline Lucas obviously thought – not unreasonably – that we ought to be working to find just solutions to the Palestinian problem.  But even so, and even if we had any clear idea of what a just solution would be, there is no reason to think that implementing whatever it was would get at the root cause of Islamist terrorism, in the sense of preventing its occurrence.  The question of whether something would be right and whether it would in fact prevent some kind of unwelcome action are unfortunately not necessarily connected.

Suppose you thought you had a clear idea of what would constitute a just solution to the Israel/Palestine problem, and suppose even that you had enough power to implement this solution.  Have you any reason to think that this would end terrorism?  Whatever solution you produced, many people would still feel aggrieved – inevitably, because the essence of conflict is that not everyone can get what they want – and many of those aggrieved people might well start to plot the violent overthrow of your arrangements, fired by different theories of justice or religions calling for the destruction of unbelievers. 

I doubt whether there is much point in looking for anything that could reasonably be picked out as a root cause in contexts like this.   The causes must be infinitely complex and many-layered, lying in the evolutionary processes that seem to have made human beings – especially young male human beings – inclined to form groups at war with other groups, and electronic communications that make it possible to plot without even meeting, and advanced weapons that enable a single person can do massive damage.  But whatever the causes, there is no reason to think that they would be unravelled  by meeting the demands of any particular set of terrorists, even if you those demands as just.

The mistake underlying the usual form taken by the search for root causes is a fundamental one:  the idea, going back to the myth of the Fall, that if only we did as we ought everything would be harmonious.  Or, if you want to look at the matter the other way round, and define doing as we ought whatever would result in a world of perfect harmony, then we have as yet not the faintest idea of how to do as we ought.  Either way, talk about root causes usually turns out to depend on a conflation of moral and causal ideas, and needs to be viewed with caution.

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