The discussions in the media about the terror attacks in the USA make painfully clear that the commentators and decision-makers react to the events in such different ways that meaningful communication is very difficult. However, the outcomes of these discussions are critically important to us all, because the reactions of the West to terrorism will have far-reaching consequences for the course of events in the global society in the coming years.
It is therefore very important to turn our attention to the way people make sense of what has happened, in particular in terms of what different people think is the root of the problem. The diagnoses of the causes of terrorism determine what kind of actions people feel are called for.
Listening to the reactions and comments, I think we can make out two broad groups of people with fundamentally different ways of perceiving political events. The first group are those who seek causes of events such as a terrorist attack in the characteristics of the perpetrators. For them, the world is made up of different individuals, groups and organizations and what these actors do is explained by what inherent qualities they have. Terrorists attack other people because they are destructive, fundamentalist, dangerous, evil or hate freedom. According to this worldview there are (and will be) evil people in the world. The logical consequence of this perspective when faced with terrorist actions is to locate the terrorists and neutralize them. This can be done by various means, such as to kill the leaders, lock them up in jails or behind blockades, destroy their organizations and deprive them of their resources, etc.
The second group are those who tend to think about the world in terms of causes and contexts. People do not act in certain ways just because of their inherent qualities, but there are reasons for their behaviour. This way of looking at things opens up a whole world of understanding of causes and consequences and makes it crucially important to understand under what conditions people start to act destructively. People who perceive the world in terms of causes and consequences also realize that the ways they act themselves have important consequences. Different ways of acting lead to different consequences, meaning it is important to adapt actions to desired outcomes. This may sound extremely trivial, but there are enough people, some in powerful positions, who seem to disregard considerations of causes and consequences when making decisions about how to handle difficult situations.
The first group live in a world where the primary concern is to be prepared for the worst on the one hand, and to react to events on the other hand. Their world is one of uncertain probabilities, because their thinking is not oriented towards analysing cause-and-effect chains or the particular contexts that determine the likelihood of certain events. Because they perceive causes of political events only in terms of inherent qualities of the actors involved, they very easily get caught up in blaming. Problems are only understood in terms of culpability, not in terms of complex circumstances, processes and contexts. The void left by not considering causes is immediately filled up with opinions, often in the form of harsh value judgments. They spend a lot of time talking about their opinions of the people they feel are the root of all evil. In the face of the recent terror attacks, they might say things like: “This is an attack against the free, open and democratic society by fanatical terrorists. We have a right and a duty to hunt down and punish the perpetrators.” The big problem with this is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say: that there are underlying reasons for what happens and that it is very important to consider causes and consequences in order to reach desirable outcomes. I am very, very concerned about the damage that can be created by decision-makers who act without considering wider causes and consequences. We sorely need people in responsible positions to work with questions like: Under what kind of circumstances do people become terrorists? How can we act in order to prevent people from wanting to join terrorist organizations? What consequences will different kinds of responses have? Personally, I believe there are situations where it is necessary to use armed violence to defend human dignity, but it must be used mindfully.
There is a profound difference between people who don’t look for underlying causes and people who do: the former have enemies, the latter don’t. People who can see that there are complex reasons for the behaviour of other people cannot really entertain fullblown enmity. They may be terribly angry, they may abhor destructive actions and they may be firmly determined to do what must be done in order to stop terrible things from happening. But because they see that people who behave destructively do it for a number of reasons, such as the beliefs they have been raised in or the experiences they had made earlier in life, they cannot put the full blame on the evilness of persons and groups in a way that creates an enemy. The guilt for adverse events gets, so to speak, spread out over a whole network of causes, circumstances and contexts.
However, more superficial discussions about causes of negative events have a way of sliding into games of distributing guilt. We have to develop ways of talking about causes, even about how we ourselves have contributed to create problems, that do not get bogged down in blaming games. Understanding the circumstances that prepared the ground for terrorism is very useful – it allows us to stop making the same mistakes all over again. It may even be a matter of survival to gain insight in how we in the past have done stupid things that contributed to later difficulties. What is not very productive is to get stuck in assigning blame. The USA and other Western countries have certainly acted in ways that have had very negative consequences, in particular in the Third World. Denying this might in itself be a cause for resentment and hate. However, debates about who is to blame are usually sterile in terms of finding constructive solutions to the problems we face. It is useful to tend an awareness of our own role in creating the present world situation because it makes it impossible for us to reject responsibility for handling the problems the world society faces. But please let us focus on constructive ways of dealing with the problems and not waste our time with assigning blame.