Terrorism and the ‘Battle of Ideas’

Posted on January 20, 2010


Christmas Day brought unwelcome news of an attempt at a terrorist attack by a 23-year old engineering student on an aeroplane bound for the United States. The would-be perpetrator was later arrested and complex Al-Qaeda links around the Muslim world disclosed. The aftermath has centred on failure within the intelligence corps and airport security, with ensuing questions of how best to protect countries against terrorism.

If it is permitted to use a very broad brush in modern history, one might liken the threat of terrorism in Western countries to that of communism in the 20th century. First, the terrorists’ aim is overthrow of a prevailing system based on, loosely speaking, classical liberal ideas and its replacement with totalitarian maxims. Second, both threats might be considered in the main external but with an internal potential. Third, they have attempted to use features of the West (globalisation for terrorists and capitalism for communists) to destroy it ‘from within’.

After World War II it was widely accepted that communism – and extremism in general – was a consequence of poverty. Poverty, in this view, created a sense of despair and hopelessness which became a breeding ground for extremist messages. This was in many cases exploited by communists who sought to antagonize the masses against existing political and economic elites.

Therefore, it was theorized, to remove the threat of communism, one had to fight poverty. If poverty was reduced there would be less fertile ground for the growth of communism. This, one might argue, was a key justification for aid of the Marshall Plan kind: by assisting reconstruction in post-war Europe, the United States might ensure repression of extremism (especially communism).

The same argument might be brought to bear for terrorism. If governments wish to fight terrorism, they ought really to focus on poverty. By fighting it, one can work for removal of the root cause of despair and extremism. The empirical evidence, however, does not bear this thesis out. The road to becoming a terrorist is much more complex and often intertwined with primarily political, rather than economic, factors. This is why, in fact, terrorists tend to be better educated and less poor on average than their fellow nationals.

In response, Western governments should certainly not rush to limit secondary education in places like Somalia with a view to protecting themselves. These findings, in fact, highlight once again that ideas have real consequences. In the struggle for the good, the right and the virtuous must be promoted and taught rationally and philosophically. A failure to respond adequately to fallacious ideas may actually result in a vicious spiral leading to terrorist acts. The relativism about philosophies and values prevailing in the West seriously inhibits this effort to make truth generally attainable and recognisable.

Not only does human fulfillment rest on the right ideas prevailing in the grand ‘Battle of Ideas’, but now our security is on the line too.

Posted in: World Affairs