Terrorism, poverty, and violence

It’s not that poverty doesn’t move them, but more correctly it is an interpretation of poverty that radicalizes (and is itself radical).

When I started my studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, I made the mistake of joking with a German colleague. We were discussing “terrorism” as a theoretical construct and I parroted the oft-repeated line that views terrorism as an outlet to poverty. This particular interpretation (which, I must be clear, I do not believe), is that for people living in poverty, the promise of money, power, and most importantly, food, can drive people to do horrific things. My colleague’s response to my joke: “That’s bulls***. It’s a fortune-cookie truism, Tim. Too simple.”


We now know that petty criminals and regular foot soldiers are definitely susceptible to offers of money, guns, and stability. Look at how successful the Somali pirates are. They provide something to people who don’t have much. But we also know that many high-profile evildoer types are far from poor. Osama bin Laden has some kind of advanced degree. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were no strangers to the classroom. Much of the theory that surrounds extremism in all its forms comes from the halls of academia.

So it is with the Underpants Bomber [because I can] Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who certainly did not come from a life of poverty. For me, the quotation that begins this post is the most telling and complete explanation of the lure of extremist viewpoints in the modern age. Not poverty but an interpretation of poverty is the recruiting tool. I’m reminded of Archbishop Camara of Brazil, one of the central minds of liberation theology, who famously said:

When I feed the poor, they call me a saint.
When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

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