Presidential Candidate Rep. Ron Paul recently made national headlines with his assertion that the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks were essentially the United States' own fault for its role in occupying foreign lands.
As Paul explained,
"Though it is hard for many to believe, honest studies show that the real motivation behind the September 11 attacks and the vast majority of other instances of suicide terrorism is not that our enemies are bothered by our way of life. Neither is it our religion, or our wealth. Rather, it is primarily occupation... imagine for a moment how you would feel if another country forcibly occupied the United States, had military bases and armed soldiers present in our hometowns."
Of course, Paul is right that controversial foreign policies can produce widespread resentment and anger. Pew Research Center surveys indicate that tens of millions of people around the world oppose U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts.
However, the annual number of suicide attacks around the world is only about 300. There is a fundamental psychological difference between the millions of people who hate U.S. policies and the very few who are willing to commit acts of murder-suicide.
Studies of suicide terrorists have shown that these attackers' primary motivation is usually not political anger, or even political ideology at all. More commonly, these individuals are struggling with severe personal crises and suicidal tendencies. Psychological assessments of preemptively arrested suicide bombers in Palestine found that more than 50 percent were depressed and 40 percent were suicidal. As one suicide terrorist admitted, he was willing to serve terrorist leaders for his own reasons, but not because he shared their priorities. "I thought hard and decided to accept their offer to carry out an act of itishhad [martyrdom], not because I belonged to the organization, but to realize my wish to die."
Furthermore, the sole academic study Paul cites to support his own political agenda is remarkably flawed. It purports to have proven that more than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation. That sounds very impressive -- as does its authors' claim to have analyzed 2,200 separate suicide terrorism incidents since 1980. But the reality is that in many of these cases, scholars Robert Pape and James Feldman knew nothing about the individual terrorists except their gender and attack location. Given that lack of depth, it is professionally irresponsible -- not to mention inaccurate -- to claim knowledge of these attackers' motives. In addition, Pape has a very questionable reputation in the academic community: his prior book on suicide terrorism was ripped by fellow scholars for having a number of glaring logical flaws.
While it's true that suicide terrorism attacks against U.S. forces increased after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, this does not necessarily mean that bad foreign policy is to blame. After all, any policy -- good or bad, peaceful or aggressive -- which brings hundreds of thousands of U.S. personnel closer to the terrorist organizations sworn to kill them is likely to increase attack rates. The undeniable fact is that it's easier to attack someone five miles away than five thousand. But of course, even if it makes U.S. personnel safer, this does not necessarily mean that they should run and hide.
For comparison's sake, police chiefs know that the safest thing for their officers would be to never leave the station. At least in the short term, that would ensure that they never get assaulted, never get shot. But it would also give criminals free reign, and that has its own dangerous consequences.
When Paul responds to the tragedies of 9/11 by pointing the finger at U.S. foreign policy, he is engaging in the most transparent of offenses: victim-blaming. It is common for victims of violent crimes such as rape and assault to take responsibility upon themselves. It is natural for them to ask "Why did this happen to me?" and "What could I have done differently to avoid this pain and suffering?"
However, you don't tell a rape victim she should have worn a different dress, kept her friends closer, or not gone jogging. You don't tell a mugging victim he should have hidden his wristwatch, parked on a different street, or never made eye contact. You don't say those things because doing so is cruel, unhelpful -- and most importantly -- mere speculation.
There is always a potential attacker out there who has been struggling with his or her own depression, hopelessness, guilt, shame, and rage--no matter what you do. And there is no such thing as a risk-free life or a risk-free policy. However, in general, victimization is often a product of two things: bad luck, on the part of the victim, and malicious intent, on the part of the attacker.
In the case of 9/11 terrorist pilots Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah, it is very clear that they were not simply driven by anti-American sentiments. Previous studies have shown that it was primarily their personal problems that produced their homicidal and suicidal intent.
In addition, the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission determined that these three men originally wanted to attack Russia, not the United States. So blaming U.S. foreign policy for their actions is simply not accurate. If not for bad luck -- a chance meeting with an Al Qaeda member in Germany -- they would have likely gone to Chechnya and blown themselves up there instead.
Paul's critics will say he went too far by essentially defending al Qaeda's reasons for attacking the United States. But in this case, that's the least of our problems. Much more concerning is that a decade after 9/11, we have a presidential candidate who doesn't fully understand suicide terrorism.
And worse yet, he's not the only one.