Essay: Terror and Peace: the Root Cause Fallacy

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The idea of "root causes" has great political attraction. Some years ago in the U.S., it dominated debate on policy toward El Salvador. It was argued that the Administration's hopes for a military solution were futile because the real causes of the insurrection were poverty, misery and hunger.

Well, yes. Revolutions do need misery to feed on. (There are exceptions. Occasionally there are revolutions of the comfortable, as in the 1960s in the U.S. and France. Such facsimiles, however, are invariably short-lived and harmless.) But these conditions, while obviously a necessary cause of revolution, are not sufficient. If they were, there would be revolution everywhere and always, since, aside from in a few countries in very modern times, poverty is the common condition of mankind.

But revolution is neither ubiquitous nor permanent. We need, therefore, something beyond poverty and misery to explain why there is revolt in some places and not others. This takes us out of the realm of what is usually meant by root causes, to culture, history, revolutionary leadership, foreign sponsorship and other presumably contingent causes.

That some causes and not others are accorded the honorific "root" has consequences. The first is to confer some special legitimacy on one set of grievances and thus on the revolutionary action that is taken in its name.

A second consequence emerges from a peculiar property of root causes: on close examination they turn out to be, as a matter of practice or policy, insoluble. There is no conceivable American policy that will solve the problem of poverty in Central America. (Not that poverty can never be ameliorated. It can. But not by a simple act of political will. In the West, for example, the conquest of mass poverty was the product of two centuries of painful industrialization.) The term root tends to be assigned to the most intractable of conditions. Except in the mind of the revolutionary, that is. The idea of root causes is therefore an invitation to surrender -- to the resistant reality of misery or to the revolutionary who alone offers the promise of instant redemption.

Thus the danger of the root cause idea. It is offered as an analytic tool to understand an unpleasant reality: revolutionary violence. But whether intended or not, the logic of the root cause argument suggests one of two attitudes toward the unpleasantness: 1) despair, because root causes cannot be changed, or 2) moral ambivalence, because legitimacy necessarily accrues to those who fight with root cause on their side. One must not find oneself "on the wrong side of history."

That does not mean that revolutionary violence can never be justified. It is hard to argue, for example, that South African blacks may not take up arms for their freedom. It means only that an appeal to root causes is not automatic justification. The Philippine Islands are replete with root causes as deep and difficult as any others in the world. Appeal to these causes, however, is not enough to justify either the ends (Communist) or the means (brutal and terroristic) of the New People's Army.

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