Things We Know That Aren’t True, Poverty and Terrorism Edition
You might think that poverty breeds terrorism. It’s a fairly intuitive view, and it has been trumpeted by some major figures. Here’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for instance: “You can never win a war against terror as long as there are conditions in the world that make people desperate — poverty, disease, ignorance.” And here’s Colin Powell: “We can’t just stop with a single terrorist or a single terrorist organization; we have to go and root out the whole system. We have to go after poverty.”
God knows, there are far, far worse outlets for the energy that has hummed and crackled around the issue of terrorism since 9/11. But here’s the thing: the more research from the field rolls in, the less it looks like poverty actually breeds terrorism. At least not in anything like a straightforward way.
A new paper in the American Journal of Political Science details some on-the-ground evidence from Pakistan. The researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 6,000 people, asking them how they felt towards four different militant groups. Controlling for a bunch of confounding factors, the researchers found that, in fact, poor Pakistanis generally hold militants in lower esteem than middle class folk do.
It is not that people are vulnerable to militants’ appeals because they are poor and dissatisfied. Instead, it appears that the urban poor suffer most from militants’ violent activities and so most intensely dislike them.