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Was State Senator Obama Right That Poverty Causes Terrorism?

ARLINGTON, VA - SEPTEMBER 11: 11: (L to R) U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a ceremony in observance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens at the Pentagon September 11, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. 

Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

With the 12th anniversary of 9/11 today, several people are sharing this scanned page from the Sept. 19, 2001 issue of the Hyde Park Herald, featuring reactions to the attacks from several local politicians, including one State Sen. Barack Obama. Obama wrote:

The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity. It may find expression in a particular brand of violence and may be channeled by particular demagogues or fanatics. Most often, though, it grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair. … [W]e will have to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes and prospects of embittered children across the globe – children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and within our own shores.

The theme of terrorism as a symptom of poverty was a popular one from that era. George W. Bush also said that “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.” But the argument that poor and uneducated people are more likely to become terrorists is more controversial than you might think.

The 9/11 hijackers and plotters, after all, were predominantly educated men from comfortable backgrounds, an extremely wealthy one in Osama bin Laden’s case. But the causal relationship has also been difficult to demonstrate on a more general level.

A widely-cited 2002 paper by economists Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova (also summarized in a New Republic article) found that support for attacks against Israeli targets among Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza did not decrease among those who were more educated and wealthier. They also found that “a living standard above the poverty line or a secondary school or higher education is positively associated with Participation in Hezbollah,” the Lebanese military group. Israeli settlers who attacked Palestinians also tended to be wealthier than average. A 2004 study by the Harvard economist Alberto Abadie found that this was also true at the country level: terrorist risk is not significantly higher for poorer countries.

But there may also be another side to the story. The political scientist Ethan Bueno de Mesquita argues that economic conditions affect terrorist recruitment in a more subtle way. Terrorist groups are more likely to want to recruit people with useful skills, in other words those with more education and success in the labor market. But it become easier for them to do so during economic downturns, when there are fewer non-terrorist opportunities available.

And indeed, a 2011 study using microlevel data on the Palestinian economy found “evidence of the correlation between economic conditions, the characteristics of suicide terrorists, and the targets they attack. High levels of unemployment enable terror organizations to recruit better educated, more mature, and more experienced suicide terrorists, who in turn attack more important Israeli targets.” A recent country-level analysis by three German economists found evidence that “education may fuel terrorist activity in the presence of poor political and socio-economic conditions, whereas better education in combination with favorable conditions decreases terrorism.”

So the image that statements like Obama’s and Bush’s conjure up of terrorists as uneducated and desperately poor people born into hopeless circumstances may be misleading. But there also may be some link between economic opportunity–among many other factors–and political violence.

In his book, The Finish, journalist Mark Bowden refers to the Hyde Park Herald column as an example of Obama’s earlier liberal worldview, which was challenged by the events of 9/11, and would eventually evolve into the hard-hearted realism of the man who ordered the Abottabad raid. Obama was “working his way toward a personal definition of evil,” Bowden writes.

That may be true, and it’s certainly hard to imagine Obama phrasing his remarks quite the same way today, but the same argument still appears in his rhetoric. In his address on counterterrorism last May, for instance, Obama argued that “foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity.  It is fundamental to our national security and it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.” Such aid, he argued, would create “reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists.”

The reason why the more simplistic argument is popular among politicians of both parties is obvious. It links an unpopular idea—spending taxpayer money to help poor people abroad—to a popular one: protecting the United States from terrorists. The link to do may be tough to prove and more nuanced than generally understood, but helping poor people just for the sake of helping them is not a political winner.