The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece by David Wessel (Princeton Economist Says Lack of Civil Liberties, Not Poverty, Breeds Terrorism, 7/5/07).
Wessel cites famed Princeton economist Alan Krueger that lack of civil liberties (much to many’s surprise) is a better predictor of terrorist involvement than poverty.
“As a group, terrorists are better educated and from wealthier families than the typical person in the same age group in the societies from which they originate,” Mr. Krueger said at the LSE in 2006 in research from his forthcoming book, “What Makes a Terrorist?”
Krueger notes that “There is no evidence of a general tendency for impoverished or uneducated people to be more likely to support terrorism or join terrorist organizations than their higher-income, better-educated countrymen”. And he observes that 9-11 perpetrators were relatively well-off men from a rich country, Saudi Arabia.
Wessel notes: “Among the statistical pieces of the puzzle a small band of academics have assembled since are these:
• Backgrounds of 148 Palestinian suicide bombers show they were less likely to come from families living in poverty and were more likely to have finished high school than the general population. Biographies of 129 Hezbollah shahids (martyrs) reveal they, too, are less likely to be from poor families than the Lebanese population from which they come. The same goes for available data about an Israeli terrorist organization, Gush Emunim, active in the 1980s.
“• Terrorism doesn’t increase in the Middle East when economic conditions worsen; indeed, there seems no link. One study finds the number of terrorist incidents is actually higher in countries that spend more on social-welfare programs. Slicing and dicing data finds no discernible pattern that countries that are poorer or more illiterate produce more terrorists. Examining 781 terrorist events classified by the U.S. State Department as “significant” reveals terrorists tend to come from countries distinguished by political oppression, not poverty or inequality.
“• Public-opinion polls from Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey find people with more education are more likely to say suicide attacks against Westerners in Iraq are justified. Polls of Palestinians find no clear difference in support for terrorism as a means to achieve political ends between the most and least educated.”
The case is far from open-and-shut, but Krueger believes that providing civil liberties and political rights is a better way of fighting terrorism. Mr. Krueger asserts: “When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics.”
It may be cold comfort when countries that pride themselves on civil liberties (like the US and UK) are victims of terrorism, but it does suggest that curbing civil liberties under things like the Patriotism Act run the risk of making things worse, not better.