[Op-Ed Essay:]

Why Did They Do It? Understanding and Solving the Terrorist Problem

© Copyright 2001 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

(This essay was originally written on 9/16/2001, five days after 9/11, and published one week later in the Gandhi Institute’s journal, thereafter reproduced and distributed in large numbers by many people on the internet and via xerox copies. Because it is an op-ed piece, with severe space constraints, I could not document with more text or endnotes many facts which some conservative responders to this piece thought were simply inflammatory opinions. Be aware that everything I presented in this op-ed essay can be backed up with good evidence from investigative agencies and seasoned reporters with major news outlets, many of them recipients of Pulitzer prizes and numerous other journalism awards. Finally, for the web version of this essay, I have given a five-year-retrospective update after the close of this piece.)


September 16, 2001

In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in United States history, our hearts lovingly join together in compassionate prayer on behalf of the 6,000 [update: less than 3,000] deceased victims, many thousands seriously injured, anguished families, and the rescue teams who’ve labored tirelessly and courageously.

Healing our grief, anger, shock, and dread will occupy us for a long, painful time. God is with us all. We are especially helped by the nondual mystical theology of our world’s sacred traditions that not only sees God as transcendent (formless Spirit) but also immanent as the Loving Presence and true Self in every heart. In this enlightened theology, God is not distant or separate, but the One who is right here, feeling and experiencing everything, painful or pleasurable. Our pain is God’s pain.

Beyond the deeply poignant healing and spiritual issues here, and the questions of Who did this terrorist act and How they did it, looms the over-arching question Why? Sadly, most in our mainstream media and political leadership are failing to ask this question.

But it is the most important query of all: Why do terrorists like Osama Bin Laden (probable mastermind of this grisly crime) and his surly gangs so despise the U.S. that they orchestrated a campaign of colossal destruction, purposely taking multitudes of innocent lives? And why do small groups of Muslim fanatics in Palestine and elsewhere cheer the monstrous horror?

I believe this is a watershed moment in our nation’s history. Now is the time when we must maturely look into our collective soul to find out why America is so hated by certain fanatics abroad.

If we can do no better than jump on the bandwagon seeking military vengeance, if our only thought is to “punish those evil bastards” (the current mantra of our political and military leaders, most of whom forget Jesus’ injunction to “love thy enemy” and his words on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”), I daresay we stoop to the same level of revenge as the terrorists who committed these heinous acts. And those who died in the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and the hijacked planes will have tragically lost their lives in vain.

Moreover, if we unleash an Armageddon of bombs and missiles on Afghanistan, we only torture and kill innocent people already suffering immense horror from the Soviet war of the 1980s and the Taliban’s repressive rule in the late 1990s. (The logic is absurd: do we now bomb Sicily to abolish the Mafia?)

Finally, if we fail to learn anything from this event, there is the likely prospect that yet another gruesome terrorist act will be wrought against our innocent civilians in the future. Hence, a rush to violence only worsens, not improves, authentic security prospects.

Therefore, our solution to the terrorist threat must start with a deep investigation of why Bin Laden and others of his ilk so despise America.

The answer is complex, involving religious, cultural, economic and geo-political issues. Discussing these issues will no doubt disturb the many Americans who remain woefully uninformed about how we are viewed abroad.

Yet we must carefully explore these factors to comprehend the reasons for what otherwise appears to be incomprehensible, unreasonable acts of violence. If we focus only on America’s glorious aspects, but ignore our shadow side, we will never understand why we have been targeted for terrorism.

In saying this, I hasten to add that I deeply love the people of this country and the ideals established by our nation’s illustrious founders. But often I have been angered and saddened by the immoral or stupid actions of some of our less-than-illustrious political, business and media leaders.

President George W. Bush declared that America was targeted because “we’re the brightest beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world.” I must respectfully disagree with the President that this was the perception or motive of Bin Laden or fringe-Muslim terrorists.

Rather, let us start with the religious-cultural issue that Bin Laden and ultra-conservatives within not only Islam but also Christianity, Judaism and certain other faiths see America as having fallen away from God. Within reactionary sectors of Islam, comprising some 10%-15% of Muslims worldwide (roughly the same percentage of rigid authoritarians as found in other religions), America is seen as “the great Satan.” For Islam, Satan represents egotism, pride, arrogance, and disobedience.

A widespread conservative religious view in Islam and other monotheisms is that America has largely succumbed to hubris, materialism and sensuality, forsaking obedience to God’s will. For proof of their point, conservatives tell us to see how we swagger on the world stage, almost always putting our own interests first. For instance, where is the public outcry in the U.S. over the fact that worldwide every day 25,000 innocents, mostly children, die from contaminated water, a problem that could have been fixed years ago for the price of a few B-2 bombers? Consider, too, our nation’s widespread obsession with sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and rap; look at the violent, degenerate, godless content of so many of our television programs and films; and notice our veritable polytheistic worship of celebrities.

Whereas other wealthy countries also show some of the latter tendencies, America is singled out by fanatics abroad because the driving power of our “cultural imperialism” has shoved our TV shows, films, videos, video-games, pop music and celebrity worship into the homes and public spaces of traditional religious cultures worldwide. Just as our giant agribusiness firms, through the new trade rules of globalization, have been able to dump cheap foodstuffs on the markets of many nations, destroying local agricultural sectors, so also the new economics of distribution let our entertainment conglomerates dump cheap TV and film content into markets worldwide, pre-empting local efforts to generate their own programs.

The situation is seen as so bad that a special conference in Canada in July 1998 saw government ministers from 19 nations in Europe, Africa and Latin America take steps to form a protective global cultural alliance. Why? To ward off what they perceive as the “evil” effects of encroaching U.S. culture.

Conservative Muslims abroad are alarmed that our less-than-godly values will contaminate the minds of their youth and turn them from God.

It makes no difference to the black/white, good/bad authoritarian views of a Bin Laden or other deranged terrorists that millions of Americans are in fact deeply spiritual or religious people who are appalled by the mediocre garbage rampant in our pop culture. Indiscriminately using Jesus’ standard, “By their fruits ye shall know them,” Bin Laden et al. condemn our entire nation because of the worldliness of a limited, albeit large, number of individuals and corporations. (Sadly, xenophobes in our midst are now, in turn, indiscriminately condemning Islam, the faith of 1.1 billion people, because of acts done by a tiny number of militant fringe-Muslims.)

A second grievance these extremists hold is that for too long our political and business leaders have economically exploited the world’s poorer nations. Though Bin Laden is an immensely wealthy Saudi expatriate, in his austere Afghani cave he no doubt sees himself as representing Third World interests.

Developing countries have long charged that elites in the U.S., U.K. and other wealthy nations—through the World Trade Organization, World Bank, IMF, USAID, and sundry private banks, multinational corporations, and corrupt UN agencies—have been plundering the world’s resources, including cheap labor. In the process, they have condemned many nations to an endless cycle of debt slavery, injurious “structural adjustment loans,” crime, corruption, instability, environmental ruin, despair.

Worse, some 99% of our official “foreign aid” tax-dollars have never gone for humanitarian projects that actually help the poor. Rather, these funds have fattened the bank accounts of wealthy Aid, Inc. middlemen and the rich bosses and investors in big companies that procure contracts for building the harmful dams, logging roads, strip mines and other ill-advised projects.

The third camp of recipients of official aid funds are, of course, the totalitarian dictators and their cronies and military / paramilitary leaders who are enriched and propped up in power in exchange for their help in perpetuating the organized thievery by the elites at the expense of the downtrodden.

By contrast, proven anti-poverty programs, like micro-loans for poor laborers, are rarely given sufficient funds by American and other western elites.

This sordid “aid” racket and the ongoing rape of poor nations has been well documented by Graham Hancock, Frances Moore Lappé, Tom Athanasiou, Catherine Caufield, James Grant and many other investigative journalists.

On this topic, Americans should read in the Catholic Church’s Catechism the chapter on the Seventh Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” which repeatedly counsels that “the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.” Hear, too, the pleas for egalitarian economics and solidarity often issued by the Pope, Catholic bishops and other spiritual leaders and enlightened economists who castigate run-amok, predatory capitalism as much as they have criticized totalitarian communism.

In this light, the ongoing exploitation of poorer nations by the rich constitutes a vast, grievous crime against humanity and against God’s other creatures and ecosystems. Yet this veritable war on the world’s innocent poor by the U.S. and other elites is never reported in our mainstream, corporate-owned media.

Thus, the terrorists who demolished the World Trade Center towers and shut down Wall Street surely felt in their cold hearts that they were the Third World’s avenging angels in striking the heart of our greedy financial empire.

We must also look at geopolitical issues. A long litany of mass murder, mayhem, and meddling by U.S. leaders and the C.I.A. in Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa over the decades indicts us as a bully no better than the Communists we demonized. These crimes, most committed on behalf of U.S. big business, have created severe resentment and enmity abroad. Yet most of us, uninformed by our media, remain blithely unaware.

[Note: Journalist William Blum has extensively detailed this massive, widespread meddling by USA forces in over 60 countries in his book, Killing Hope: US Interventions in the Third World, some excerpts available at homepage www.killinghope.org, with much more available at www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Foreign_Policy/KillingHope_page.html. As just one instance of this syndrome, consider the CIA's covert coup d'etat terrorist toppling of Iran's freely elected democratic government in 1953; the full report on this fiasco, which still riles the Muslim world, is Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, Wiley, 2003. This meddling has actually been going on long before the 1950s. Read the views of the USA's most decorated and beloved soldier in the early decades of the 20th century, General Smedley Darlington Butler, whose views are still highly relevant today.]

Now consider the two worst terrorist events in U.S. history—the terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and this recent 9/11 attack.

Both were enacted by monsters of our own making. Timothy McVeigh, a highly decorated, beloved soldier-son, patriotically served in our armed forces as a talented killer. Osama Bin Laden was armed and trained by the CIA in the successful Mujahiddin fight [surely only a Pyrrhic victory!] against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

A single event turned both McVeigh and Bin Laden into enemies of our nation: former President George Bush’s 1991 Gulf War on Iraq. McVeigh, who fought in this war, and Bin Laden as well as many of our allies were all sickened by the unbelievably brutal overkill force that we used on the Iraqi people, who, under the atrocious tyrant Saddam Hussein, already lived in one of the worst concentration-camp nations in the world. All were shocked by the intensity of our attack (e.g., 88,500 tons of explosives, equivalent in force to 7 1/2 Hiroshima atom bombs), by our extensive and illegal wiping out of civilian life-support infrastructure, and by our use of 300 tons of depleted uranium, our own special form of toxic chemical warfare. DU is the chief culprit in an epidemic of cancer, leukemia, and birth defects so bad that most Iraqi couples don’t want to have children.

Bin Laden and militant Muslims were mortified by the stationing of U.S. troops (before, during, after the Gulf War) in Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest shrines. The soldiers’ drinking, gambling, cussing and other actions forbidden by Islam defiled sacred ground, in their view.

The awful irony of the Gulf War was that it was completely unnecessary. Careful investigators Pierre Salinger, Stephen Graubard, Robert Parry, Geoff Simons, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and others have revealed that three U.S. State Department officials gave Saddam the green light to invade Kuwait, and President Bush later ignored Saddam’s “seriously negotiable” backdoor peace proposals. International conflict-resolution experts like Roger Fisher complained during the buildup to the war that Bush was violating every single known precept of peacemaking.

But Bush, bless his heart, was intent upon overcoming his own “wimp factor” (as Newsweek magazine termed it) and, as he often stated, “kicking the Vietnam War syndrome” so that Americans would again gladly send U.S. forces to impose our will abroad. Bush itched for war for other reasons as well: to show off U.S. military hardware to potential buyers, to keep defense spending at top levels to satisfy friends in the corporate defense sector, and to better control Middle Eastern oil for our use—a longstanding obsession for the Bush clan.

Our failure to wean ourselves off foreign oil and utilize highly feasible wind and solar power insures that we always must meddle in the Middle East, and militarily support Israel. That country has violated far more UN resolutions than Iraq, and has violated the original egalitarian Zionism espoused by Judaism’s greatest spiritual leaders.

Bin Laden, not to mention countless people of conscience, has been deeply angered by the murderous U.S. sanctions on Iraq, our illegal, ongoing terrorism against civilians. Sanctions have in the last 11 years impoverished everyone outside Saddam’s circle of cronies and utterly crushed Iraq’s middle-class, the potential best source of opposition to his terrible regime. Sanctions have brought huge sums of money to Saddam and his sons through their control of the black-market smuggling rings that have arisen due to the embargo.

Far worse, sanctions have killed up to 1.6 million innocents—primarily babies, little children and seniors—by depriving them of clean water and medicines (despite duplicitous protests by U.S. leaders that sanctions do no such thing).

Our sanctions on Iraq have been condemned in no uncertain terms by the Pope and many religious and human rights leaders, including over 60 members of our own Congress. Two UN Humanitarian Relief Coordinators for Iraq (Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck) have quit in disgust, charging that U.S. policies in Iraq amount to crimes against humanity if not actual genocide.

That most Americans don’t even know what our sanctions have done to these innocent, hapless Iraqis, and that our media routinely suppress the casualty figures and openly lie about the efficacy of the bungled “oil-for-food” program, are more reasons that Bin Laden is infuriated at America.

In fact, it is this ignorance and apathy on the part of most Americans and their media that has led Bin Laden to charge that we are as complicit as our leaders. Hence he feels no qualms about targeting our civilians in his terrorist acts and has issued a cruel fatwa that all Muslims are “commanded by God to kill Americans whenever possible.”

Bin Laden and his gangs of terrorists are madmen who have utterly lost sight of the lofty spirit of Islam’s religious legal code, the shari`a, and the liberally compassionate heart of Prophet Muhammad and early generations of Muslims who helped define the shari`a from Qur’an revelations.

But they are madmen with legitimate grievances against our ungodly policies and practices. As already noted, many of our world’s most respected spiritual leaders harbor the very same grievances.


Beyond simply trying to obliterate terrorists from the face of the earth, an impossible task, would we not do better to first set our own house in order by becoming a more loving, nonviolent, responsible, humble, spiritual people?

If we underwent a profound transformation in our national character, and took the lead in healing the world’s economic, political, environmental and cultural crises—instead of perpetuating them—we wouldn’t trigger animosity and terrorist impulses. This is clearly our best “defense” against terrorism.

To this end, I have nine specific, feasible proposals (for starters) that could radically improve America’s reputation abroad as unselfishly committed to the common good:

1) Let’s lend $10 billion a year in micro-credit to the world’s poor. The loans could be administered by experts in this highly successful anti-poverty approach at the Grameen Bank, Accion International and other agencies.

2) In lieu of dropping bombs on Afghanistan or other countries, let’s bring in food supplies to starving people there and elsewhere.

3) Instead of wasting more funds on an already hideously bloated military-industrial complex, let us spend $5 billion, the overall cost of two B-2 bombers, on global distribution of the revolutionary water-purification UV Waterworks device and seeds of the miraculous Moringa tree to end the ongoing nightmare of disease and death (9 million annual lethal casualties) caused by unsafe drinking water.

4) Let’s spend $20 billion over several years (with contributions from other wealthy nations) to build desalination plants and water distribution infrastructure to get fresh water to people in dire need, especially in the Middle East, Africa, southern Asia and Latin America.

We must also: 5) Stop resisting and truly commit to measures to curb global warming, the greatest imminent danger to earthly life.

6) Immediately end sanctions on all non-military items for Iraq and Cuba.

7) Stop being the world’s leading dealer of arms and toxic chemicals.

8) Help spur development of wind and solar power to alleviate the world’s energy crisis. (Fact: wind turbines in just three Great Plains U.S. states could supply our nation’s entire electricity needs and allow us to remove our troops from Saudi Arabia, since we’d no longer be dependent on Middle Eastern oil.)

9) Finally, for a relatively small cost, $160 million, less than the full price of one of the unneeded new F-22 stealth planes now in production, as a good-will inspirational gesture let’s construct four of the most beautiful mosques ever seen: one in Kabul, Afghanistan, the others in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. And somewhere in Jerusalem let’s build a big gorgeous synagogue-mosque complex where progressive Jews and Muslims can lovingly pray together.

In becoming genuinely involved in helping the world’s people as their friend, not just exploiting them for their resources and cheap labor, we might then be seen by others, and not just by ourselves, as “the indispensable nation.”

Enacting global good will and compassion in this way would also be our finest tribute to those slain or injured in the recent nightmare events at New York and Washington DC, and give a much richer meaning to our display of the American flag.

Isn’t it finally time for us to go beyond “business and pleasure as usual” and apathy over worldwide suffering to give peace, justice and love a real chance?

This is our precious moment, our sacred opportunity…

Update from Timothy in October, 2006: Almost predictably, none of the solutions outlined here have been implemented. Instead, George W. Bush launched a quick war on Afghanistan that drove out most of the Taliban, but allowed the cruel rogue warlords to re-take almost the entire country outside of Kabul, and Afghanistan's hapless economy is now virtually dependent on the illicit opium trade; women's rights and bodily safety are again seriously endangered in most regions of the country; and the Taliban are gathering strength once again and promise to create more trouble. (Note: the takeover of most of Afghanistan by the warlords is a result of the ancient peaceful governing network of Sufi Muslim spiritual leaders being overthrown when we baited the Soviets into invading Afghanistan to experience their own Vietnam-like quagmire. That Afghanistan had for centuries been a peaceful country largely run by benign Sufis was the official assessment by our own CIA in its official "country study" of Afghanistan in the late 1990s.)

The Bush administration then squandered the worldwide sympathy for the USA after 9/11 by launching a horribly misguided war on Iraq in early 2003, now clearly revealed to have been based on extensive lying, manipulation of the evidence, massive propagandizing of the American people and rest of the world, and utterly corrupt plans to let giant corporations take over Iraq as a dangerous, greedy experiment in corporate governance of an entire nation—oligarchy at its worst. (See Naomi Klein's explosive article "Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia," Harper's Magazine, Sept. 2004, posted at http://harpers.org/BaghdadYearZero.html.) We have seen the results of this debacle: a tragic, grievous civil war in Iraq with no end in sight, an even more powerfully burgeoning anti-American terrorist movement worldwide among Wahhabist Muslims sympathetic to bin Laden's agenda, an economically bankrupt USA ever-more dependent on foreign oil and throwing away ever-greater amounts of precious funds each year down the rat-hole of military spending (now over $500 billion per year!).

Meanwhile, global warming and a host of other horrific ills wage their terrible toll on living beings human and nonhuman throughout the world—sure to grow even more nightmarish in coming years.

And the United States, supposed "leader of the free world," stands impotently, apathetically, the majority of its politicians (Republicans and too many right-leaning "Democrats") holding to a status-quo, non-progressive agenda of stupidity and greed, and the apparent majority of its citizens too overworked, overstressed or just stultified by materialistic living to care about enacting any real changes.

Nevertheless, I remain always an optimist. I believe a critical mass of heart-centered, clear-minded souls can make a revolutionary difference in how our politics—that is, our public policies—are conducted. And when this revolution happens, a much more powerful and effective response can then be made to heal the problems of terrorism, global warming, world poverty, environmental destruction, and so on. Time will tell...

In any case, surely all is in God's hands. We are being dreamed by the Divine Dreamer, Who is all love, power, goodness and joy.