Poverty vs injustice in war on terrorism

The author is dean, School of Management and Information Technology, De La Salle University, College of St. Benilde.

Recently, University of South Carolina professor Donald Weatherbee
delivered a lecture at De La Salle University regarding US-Southeast
Asian relations in the post 9-11 security environment. During the open
forum that commenced, a Philippine foreign ministry official asked
about the visitor’s views on the roots of terrorism after emphasizing
that the current administration recognizes the link between the war on
terrorism and the war on poverty. From the ensuing discussion, I
gathered that many of our distinguished colleagues and professors share
a similar view about poverty and terrorism.

Professor Weatherbee humbly stated that he was not familiar with the
literature (since he is an expert in international relations than in
terrorism). He said that he has not encountered any empirical study
that provided a direct link between poverty and terrorism. He pointed
that the backgrounds of many terrorist leaders revealed that they are
well-educated and at least middle-class individuals. There were other
aspects of terrorism mentioned that suggest a weak correlation.

This is not to say that poverty has no link to terrorism at all as some
members of terrorist groups do come from certain poverty groups.
However, the link between poverty and terrorism seems weak and tends to
be exaggerated. At best, poverty conditions some support for terrorist
activities. This yellow pad note is a written reaction to the issue
brought upon by the occasion of Weatherbee’s lecture.

Poverty

Poverty is not the root cause of or motivation for terrorism. If the
official analysis subscribes to the poverty-terrorism link, the
argument would be that the war on terrorism could be decisively won by
winning the war against poverty. This may justify an anti-poverty
agenda that underscores expanded but ineffective welfare-oriented
programs. As such, scarce resources would tend to be diverted from
programs that could in the long run support wealth generation and
promote social cohesion.

Overcoming mass poverty – a perennial phenomenon – is a long-drawn
process. Victory can be decided by many external and internal factors,
which include among others the results of our technological,
scientific, industrial and marketing capabilities. Building these
capabilities could take long. Hence, it would be reasonable to expect
the fight against terrorism to be won in 10, 15, 25 years or longer.
What then can be done between now and then so that terrorism could
linger no longer?

Injustice

Behind the use of terror for political gain, there are causes other
than poverty. As defined, terrorism is an act of political violence
against the State by sowing fear among the general public. It induces
the public’s loss of confidence in the ability of the State to protect
them. What then motivates the terrorist act?

Monetary and ideological reasons seem to provide a more plausible
explanation and link. Of the two, terrorism based on ideology offers a
more romantic justification. To members and supporters, the validity
and attractiveness of ideology (and the underlying terrorist methods)
is reinforced by the historical record and continuing perceptions of
social injustice.

Injustices are committed against various segments and individuals of
society. Historically, religion has been used frequently as a platform
to react against prevailing systems of injustice. This has bolstered
the view of “civilizations” clashing simply because religious tolerance
is lacking among certain groups of people. In not a few instances too
the constitutions, laws, and elite politics of nation-states
discriminate against many groups of people – in terms of religious and
political beliefs, socioeconomic status, gender, race and ethnic
grouping, etc. States have not sufficiently corrected (and apologized
for) social injustices. Further, justice systems have been corrupted
and broken down.

Therefore, in many societies, the grievances have not stopped. The
wounds continued to deepen in the face of helplessness. And for some
sensitive and well-educated individuals, replacing the social order is
an imperative with terrorism as an optional response to the unjust
social order. Poverty is seen as an effect of social injustice – of
colonial history, of racial or religious violence, and of irresponsible
and self-serving elite governance. True enough, the poor are often the
victims of social injustice and middle-class intellectuals sympathize
with their plight.

Oftentimes, however, the stress on poverty has obfuscated the general
analysis of mass discontent and also of terrorism. In many parts of the
Philippines, the reality of daily poverty is stark but it seems that
the reality of “the unjust society” is more explosive. Poverty
engenders defeat and hate. But injustice triggers vengeful rage. Thus,
it could be observed that the methods of those fighting poverty are
usually different from those who are victims or witnesses of injustice.

If the insight is given serious consideration, the implication is that
government should pay more attention and resources in the
administration of justice and in maintaining public order. Government
institutions should make sure that laws are just, everyone is equal
before the law, and the rule of law prevails. Beyond what government
and the State could provide, top-level decision makers (as change
agents) should be aware of the justice systems in their own workplace.
What these can do hopefully is to create the conditions for the
systematic reduction of many other social ills and obstacles to
cooperation, human development, and wealth generation.

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