Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Thuesday column: What is it with doctors? The economics of terrorism.

Two questions went through my mind as I looked into the eyes of Dr Mohamed Haneef during his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday night.

One was what damning information the Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews could possibly have on him. It was apparently enough to prevent Mr Andrews from giving him back his visa, but not enough to stand up in court. Or maybe it was too sensitive to reveal at the time, in which case I can’t understand why the Minister plans to reveal it today.

Or maybe Dr Haneef is completely innocent. He certainly looked it on 60 Minutes.

The other question concerns doctors...

Dr Haneef gave his mobile phone card to a cousin suspected of involvement in the Glasgow car bombing, Doctor Sabeel Ahmed.

What is it about doctors, I wondered as he explained that the British wing of his extended family were respected medicos.

Five of the nine people arrested over the Glasgow bombing had the word ‘doctor’ in front of their names. One was a PhD, another was a medical student.

What is it about doctors? They spend their time saving lives and they are usually better educated and better off than the people around them.

And terrorists tend to be uneducated and poor, right?

The US President thinks they are. After the September 11 attacks he declared his determination to “fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror”. His wife said that “educated children are much more likely to embrace the values that defeat terror.”

After the 2005 London transit bombing Britain’s Tony Blair proclaimed that “where there is extremism, fanaticism or acute and appalling forms of poverty in one continent, the consequences no longer stay fixed in that continent.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said terrorism flowed from “economic powerlessness”. In this country Tim Costello declared, “we cannot win a war on terrorism unless we wage a war against poverty”

And Kevin Rudd announced that it was “in our own interests to tackle poverty in our own region as part of a wider strategy to deal with the impact of terrorism”.

If seems universally obvious that poverty and poor education breed terrorism. But it’s wrong.

Alan Krueger from Princeton University was at first inclined to believe the conventional wisdom. As an economist specialising in occupational choice it made sense to him. Some people were able to get jobs as doctors or lawyers or economists, others with more limited means would choose crime, or terrorism.

Until he went in search of evidence for the terrorism part of the proposition and found next to none.

He has set out his findings in a book entitled What Makes A Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism to be published next month.

He says the myth that poverty breeds terrorism can be traced back to 1933 and a landmark study entitled The Tragedy of Lynching. It linked the number of lynchings each year in the US South to the price of an acre of land and each acre’s yield of cotton. As economic conditions improved, the number of lynchings fell and from this flowed near universally accepted idea the idea that poverty led to frustration and aggression.

But the study was flawed, and this wasn’t discovered until this decade when a group of sociologists reexamined the data using more modern techniques. It turned out that lynching and poverty had been merely moving in the same direction, they hadn’t been connected. And the data stopped in 1929, the year of the great depression. We now know that after that the US economy collapsed, but the number of lynchings continued to fall.

Krueger examines opinion polls in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey and finds that suicide attacks against Americans have more support the more educated is the person answering the question.

He reports the findings of a UN aid worker who interviewed 250 militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and concluded that “none of them were uneducated, desperately poor, simple minded or depressed. Many were middle class and, unless they were fugitives, held paying jobs. Two were the sons of millionaires”. Another survey compared suicide bombers with the general Middle East population found them less than half as likely to come from families below the poverty line.

(Northern Island is an apparent exception. There in the late 1960s the members of the Irish Republican Army were disproportionately poor and less educated. Krueger can’t explain this except to suggest that the most educated most unhappy Irish Catholics may have left the country. Or the Irish may have seen themselves as involved in a civil war rather than terrorism.)

What conclusion does Krueger draw from the near overwhelming evidence that terrorists are more, not less, privileged than those around them?

It is that rather than being an occupational choice attractive to poor people in the same way as is crime, terrorism is better understood as a political statement with the same characteristics as voting.

In countries in which voting is voluntary it is usually the better educated and higher income citizens who take the trouble to vote, despite the fact that their time is more valuable.

“Why? Because they care about influencing the outcome and consider themselves sufficiently well informed to want to express their opinions. Terrorists also care about influencing political outcomes,” Krueger says.

He finds that terrorism tends to flourish where civil liberties and political rights are suppressed. “When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics”.

If cutting poverty helps fight terrorism at all it is only by raising the likelihood that a country can guarantee civil liberties and political rights. But that isn’t automatic. “There are many examples of countries with low living standards that provide their citizens with civil liberties and political rights, and enough examples of rich countries (like Saudi Arabia) that restrict civil liberties and political rights.”

What Kruger really can’t understand is why the belief that terrorism is triggered by poverty has been so persistent in the West in the face of so much evidence.

He says it may be because that belief allows us to avoid confronting terrorists’ grievances.

Krueger believes that we should fight poverty. But we should do it for its own sake, not in the false belief that we are fighting terrorism.

Then we won’t abandon the poor when we discover that the strategy hasn’t worked. And we won’t continue to be surprised when doctors pack cars with explosives.