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Pure Onsense

Searching for Motive

Scott Zuke

(4/2013) The intense media coverage of the manhunt following the Boston bombing was almost as much about identifying the motive of the perpetrators as it was about identifying the men themselves. In all the tumult the very ideas of identity and motive twisted together, with some prematurely speculating that it could be right-wing extremists, and others just hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be a Muslim.

When the FBI released photos of the suspects there must have been some internal confusion, as they did not fit the visual profile of white supremacists or al Qaeda members. When they were later identified as ethnic Chechens, the picture became even harder to square with acquired expectations. Americans almost had to learn the history of the tiny Russian republic to find what possible complaint it could have against the U.S., but then learned that it’s a predominantly Muslim country. For many, that sufficed as an answer to their motive.

Since then we have learned that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may have been self-radicalized Muslims, calling their indiscriminate attack on civilians a response to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But these details don’t aid our understanding of the larger underlying forces that generate terrorism.

Micah Zenko of Foreign Policy Magazine asks whether it even matters what motivated the Boston bombers. "Since answering this question is inherently difficult if not impossible, and will not compel any substantive public policy changes, what then is our motivation to understand terrorists' motivations?"

One answer is that the critical exercise of examining the motive is useful for rooting out some oversimplified theories that lead us not only into bad public policy, but also unwarranted suspicion.

First of all, there’s the still common view that Islam has some inherent proclivity toward violence. What the brothers have in common with other radicalized Muslims who resort to terrorism, though, is that they are attempting to justify their acts not with Koranic verses, but with secular, political grievances. Most terrorists, experts say, are in fact religious novices with significant factual misunderstandings about the history and teachings of their faith.

A report titled "Rethinking Radicalization" by The Brennan Center for Justice finds that the "available research does not support the view that Islam drives terrorism or that observing the Muslim faith--even a particularly stringent or conservative variety of that faith--is a step on the path to violence. In fact…a strong religious identity could well serve to inoculate people against turning to violence in the name of Islam."

As for their opposition to America’s wars in the Middle East, it’s true that vengence for U.S. policy abroad is a commonly cited motive of terrorists, but it’s still a limited explanation. In Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong writes, "All fundamentalists feel that they are fighting for survival…In this frame of mind, on rare occasions, some resort to terrorism," adding, "The vast majority, however, do not commit acts of violence, but simply try to revive their faith in a more conventional, lawful way." So what pushes that small number to take the path of violence while others do not?

In any case, this as a weak excuse coming from the brothers, one having become a citizen last year, and the other on his way to citizenship after years living here. There’s been little mention from friends or family of either brother exercising his freedom of speech to voice his political views. They would hardly have been expressing an unpopular opinion, afterall. Most Americans agree that invading Iraq was a mistake, and an overwhelming majority support the imminent withdrawl of troops from Afghanistan.

This doesn’t seem like an attack that can be neatly attributed simply to religion, politics, or ethnicity, and why should it have to? None of those factors applied to the Columbine shooters, for example. Several motives were entertained, but ultimately the leader of the pair was a simple psychopath with a venomous nacissism.

Nevertheless, for many people the connection to Islam will be hard to shake. Even though our country has strained to cleanse itself of anti-Muslim sentiment since the fallout of 9/11, there seems to be an undercurrent of mistrust--a sense of "otherness"--towards Muslims that still bubbles to the surface in moments of tension.

It was seen in the outraged opposition to plans to build an Islamic community center, dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque," in lower Manhattan a couple years ago. And it provides tacit justification for law enforcement agencies to infiltrate mosques and monitor Muslim communities for signs of radicalization, even in the absense of a specific perceived threat.

In a famed 1993 essay in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington theorized that, "Civilization identity will be increasingly important in the future, and the world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among…major civilizations," including the Western and Islamic civilizations, which expand beyond national borders and are the broadest labels by which people identify and separate themselves. "The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another," Huntington argues. Religion is an important fault line, but certainly not the only one.

The theory may explain why anti-Americanism--or more broadly, a resistance to domination by Western culture and institutions--is a common thread throughout the otherwise diverse Islamic civilization, from North Africa up into Eurasia.

While the bombers’ motive may be impossible to know, their actions may be symptomatic of the "Clash of Civilizations" that Huntington predicted, and that could have important implications for our foreign policy. "The efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values, to maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests engender countering responses from other civilizations," he writes.

Recognizing that might not change anything overnight, and maybe it shouldn’t, but as conscious citizens of the world, self-critical and concerned about our impact on others, it’s a line of thought worth pursuing. And for what it’s worth, it’s the opposite of what terrorists do.

Read other article by Scott Zuke