That this was an assault upon our society, whatever its ostensible capitalist and militarist "targets," was again thought too obvious a point for a clever person to make. It became increasingly obvious, though, with every successive nihilistic attack on London, Madrid, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Bali. There was always some "intellectual," however, to argue in each case that the policy of Tony Blair, or George Bush, or the Spanish government, was the "root cause" of the broad-daylight slaughter of civilians. Responsibility, somehow, never lay squarely with the perpetrators.So here's what I've said before and am going to say again: responsibility can (and in this case certainly does) lie squarely with the perpetrators of a crime without this meaning that there is no point in looking elsewhere for any root cause. This root cause is unlikely to be anything so simple as the policy of this or that government, but only careful investigation will show whether it is or not. The point I want to make is that to identify a root cause of some class of actions is not to deny that agents are wholly responsible for their own actions. The same kind of point applies, I think, to unemployment and rioting (or looting). That is, the unemployed are likely to be on average lazier (not necessarily by much) than the employed, and when rioting or looting is going on you can expect it to attract a bad crowd. Similarly, as far as I know, the people who ran the Nazi death camps tended to be sadists and psychopaths.
But no one would blame the Holocaust on a few bad apples. Not everyone directly involved was unusually sadistic or psychopathic before they got involved. And why people like this were ever put in a position to commit their crimes with the acceptance of (most of) the rest of their society surely calls for explanation. The same kind of thing goes for unemployment, I would think. In a world with no unemployment everyone will work, except the very lazy. In a world with some unemployment those very lazy people will still not work and some others won't either. These others will include some (maybe very many) people who are just unlucky, but they will probably also include some people who are a bit lazier than average. When being a Nazi in power is an option, this option will be popular with sadists. When being unemployed is one of the paths facing people, this will be popular with relatively lazy people. And when rioting and looting are going on, thieves are likely to want to join in more than other people. So the popular, conservative view that rioters are thieves, the unemployed are lazy, and so on, is likely to have a grain of truth in it. (I should stress in the case of unemployment that it might well be no more than a grain. In the 1980s in Britain whole factories, mines, etc. were closed own, leaving their workers unemployed. Of course these people were not lazy. And the same kind of thing is happening now in the U.S.) But this does not explain why being a Nazi in power, or being unemployed, or joining a riot is even an option in the first place. Factories don't close down because their workers choose not to work, preferring leisure over income as I'm pretty sure one of my old economics textbooks implied.
And so with Al Qaeda. I accept Hitchens' characterization of them as:
a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and "unbelievers," and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.But this does not explain why the group has ever got as far as it has toward achieving its aims. Saying, however truly, that it and its actions are simply evil does not explain all that needs to be explained. For that we need a more sophisticated analysis, of the kind offered here by Peter Bergen. And given this, assertions like Hitchens', implying that to identify root causes is to let the terrorists off the hook, are either propaganda for the popular, conservative view that we have been involved since 9/11 in a simple war of good against evil, and that it is not only unnecessary but morally wrong to consider the possibility that things might be more complicated than this, or else simply mistaken.