In the official, mainstream view of terrorism — the view trumpeted by western governments, think tanks and media commentators — terrorists are freedom-loathing zealots with an irrational hatred of our western lifestyle and culture.
But another view, polls suggest, is gaining ground with the public: Terrorism is actually a response to military interventions perpetrated by western governments.
These sharply diverging views are central to the question of how to deal with terrorism. Under the "irrational hatred" view, there's not much we can do other than ratchet up our security and hunker down for a long fight with a bunch of lunatics.
But under the second theory, some solutions may be possible. At least, it suggests we should carefully scrutinize what actions our governments are up to in the Middle East, to assess whether these actions are justified and, if not, to stop them. After all, if the actions aren't justified, we should stop them anyway. Right? Or should we continue to act unjustly — if that's what we're doing — simply so we can look firm in our opposition to terrorism?
The U.S. and British governments fear such public scrutiny of their actions in the Middle East. This isn't surprising, since any serious analysis would reveal a history of Anglo-American interventions that could best be described as imperialistic.
"(W)hat nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common," notes [Robert] Pape in his book, Dying to Win, "is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland." Pape also observes that once a military occupation ends, the suicide terrorism tends to stop.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair went to great lengths last week to suggest that the recent London bombings weren't connected to Britain's role in the occupation of Iraq, but rather to irrational hatred of western culture.
If you attack your neighbour, kill several of his family members, ransack his house and steal his car, is it logical to conclude that your neighbour is in a rage against you because he doesn't like how you dress and what movies you enjoy watching?
It's clear that the attachment to the view of terrorism as "irrational" supports the refusal of both the U.S. and Britain to engage in appropriate self-examination. Sadly, I don't expect that to change.