Recovering Our Capacity to Think

Faced with yet another massacre of innocents, we all too readily think of it as “senseless” or “insane.” If the acts are horrifying we sometimes think of them as “evil;” if just random they seem crazy. But those responses ignore that in every case they were motivated and planned by people who usually believed in what they were doing.

The Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs recently reminded us that “in most cases, terrorism is not rooted in insanity.” Shocked, caught off guard, we may not grasp the logic of it, but we automatically put it beyond our capacity to understand, if we label it as “crazy” – and “evil” takes us no further to understanding why.

Dr. Sachs reminds us: “it is more often an act of war, albeit war by the weak rather than by organized states and their armies.”

“Islamist terrorism is a reflection, indeed an extension, of today’s wars in the Middle East. And with the meddling of outside powers, those wars are becoming a single regional war – one that is continually morphing, expanding, and becoming increasingly violent.”

Looked at that way, terrorism is a random or loosely coordinated series of retaliations against an overwhelming and relentless campaign by the west to assert its interests. Millions of Muslim lives have been lost, human rights have been trampled, communities and families decimated, and this not to mention the cost to us.

To say this is not to take sides, nor is it to accept or forgive. Even seeing terrorists acts as “evil” does not absolve us of the need to grasp their motivation and meaning. It is simply to try to look at reality. Without blaming our selves for past aggressions or old mistakes, Sachs concludes: “Ending the terror of radical Islam will require ending the West’s wars for control in the Middle East.”

However justified our actions in the past may have been by our need to protect our interests, the good news he sees is that they are now changing.

The Age of Oil is gradually coming to an end. “We should make that end come faster: climate safety will require that we leave most fossil-fuel resources in the ground. Nor do the other ancient motives for Western interference apply any longer. The UK no longer needs to protect its trade routes to colonial India, and the US no longer needs a ring of military bases to contain the Soviet Union.”

To be sure, we have investments to protect. But if we think of it that way, we might be open to more rational cost/benefit calculations, and new policies that steer clear of attempts to control the middle-east.

There are other meanings to terrorist acts, and Sach’s ideas may be far from the last word on the subject. But it fair to say that one of the worst casualties of terrorism is our capacity to think clearly. When we are terrified, we tend to panic, and when we panic we just want to get out of the way of danger — or strike back. That’s usually the full extent of the mental activity that goes into our actions.

We need to do better than that.