Terrorism and the Reason Why

Kudos to Helen Thomas, that 89-year-old front-row mainstay of the Washington press corps. At President Obama’s press briefing this past week with counterterrorism official John Brennan and Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano, which I’d mostly avoided figuring it to be an hour’s worth of canned statements and only revisited Sunday, I completely missed an important—and painfully telling—question Thomas posed to Brennan and Napolitano. A question that in my estimation revealed more about the Obama administration than the rest of the 40-minute briefing.

What Thomas asked, in essence, was this: Why do terrorists like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hate and attack us? What causes them to want to do such a thing? Napolitano dodged the question entirely, but Thomas pressed on: 

Thomas: What is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why.

Brennan: Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents. What they have done over the past decade and half, two decades, is to attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he’s able to attract these individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.

HT: And you’re saying it’s because of religion?

JB: I’m saying it’s because of an al Qaeda organization that uses the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.

HT: Why?

JB: I think this is a—this is a long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.

HT: But you haven’t explained why.

At that point Thomas was cut off, the briefing moved on, and her prodding was left behind.


Her question remains unanswered by Brennan and Napolitano—and for that matter by the president himself or anyone in his administration. What’s so depressing about that fact is it illustrates a distinctly American way of thinking, one critiqued eloquently by people like Andrew Bacevich, in which US leaders believe the reasons for terrorist attacks or animosity abroad toward Americans lie everywhere but here. Never do they look inward, at the US’ actions and the repercussions of those actions, and think, Perhaps what we’re doing is bringing some of this on. That our foreign or economic policy decisions have consequences. No, you didn’t hear that from Brennan or Napolitano, and don’t expect it from them anytime soon.

As Ray McGovern recently pointed out, the 9/11 Commission, unlike the political leaders at the time, did go so far as to suggest that American foreign policies—the commission mentioned our policy toward Israel and Palestine, in particular—reverberate back home. So, too, did a former CIA specialist, Michael Scheuer, who said, “For anyone to say that our support for Israel doesn’t hurt us in the Muslim world…is to just defy reality.”

But any kind of real discussion on the ramifications and often blowback from the US’ actions—be they in the Middle East, Russia, wherever—always seems taboo, swatted aside like Helen Thomas’ questions. Until our political leaders do finally acknowledge and confront the reality that attacks like Abdulmutallab’s happen for particular reasons, some of which could very well be how we deal with the rest of the world, then we’ll never get a straight, honest answer to the questions Thomas raised.