Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

No One Asks Why Terrorists Do What They Do

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab i i

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, is a Nigerian man suspected of attempting to blow up Northwest Flight 253 as it headed to Detroit on Christmas Day. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, is a Nigerian man suspected of attempting to blow up Northwest Flight 253 as it headed to Detroit on Christmas Day.

Getty Images

A few more words about the attempted bombing attack on that Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.

Back when I started in the newspaper business, when dinosaurs walked the Earth, we spent a lot of time crafting our ledes (that's the first paragraph of a story). A lede was supposed to have five elements: who, what, when, where and why. These days in the computer-assisted, Google-saturated, 24-hour cable universe, the first four are almost instantaneous.

It's that last one — why — that seems to elude us, for far too long, and with tragic results.

I am thinking about two kinds of terrorists, the kind all of us think about and the kind only some of us do.

The kind we are all thinking about are the ones who blow up buildings and themselves, who set off bombs in crowded markets and bring down airliners and command the attention of our brightest and most important people.

But I am also thinking about the kinds of terrorists who only some of us have to worry about, who shoot people because they want their sneakers or are jealous of their girlfriends, who firebomb the houses of grandmothers who want them to stop congregating in front of the homes these grandmothers have worked many hours to afford.

And when I think about both of these kinds of terrorists I realize we know an awful lot about who they are, but not a lot about why they do what they do.

Can I just tell you? It strikes me that we care a great deal about why they do what they do, only to the extent that it confirms what we already believe. We believe they are supercriminals, terminally evil, impossible to redeem. Or we believe they are poor, misguided, and desperate for a way out.

But it seems clear to me by now that al-Qaida, just like the urban thugs who roam a small but powerful number of our cities, has terrorists of many faces.

As author Jessica Stern wrote in a piece in this weekend's Washington Post, about what motivates terrorists, some are desperately poor kids, and some are bored rich kids; some are motivated by religion, some by a sense of injustice. But some simply are motivated by a desire to be someone other than who they are now.

It is the same with the thugs — some are desperately poor and misguided, victims themselves of horrific mistreatment. And others are sociopathic misfits looking for a shortcut.

But our approach to all is one or the other: isolate, punish, kill. Or, throw up our hands and withdraw. Or, occasionally, sympathize. Then throw up our hands and withdraw. But neither approach recognizes the realities of human nature, and all the varied ways in which people can be motivated to do evil, and then, sometimes, to walk away from evil.

To change.

I hate to ask, but is that because both the people we are talking about are brown? And we have a hard time differentiating the many faces and motivations of brown people that we cannot see that they are as varied in their thinking and causes as white Europeans?

Or is that we, ourselves, have become so polarized in our own thinking, so self-absorbed, that when we talk about them, we are really just talking about ourselves?

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues