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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 20, 2004

War and Terrorism

Doug Knapp
Pages 109-128
DOI: 10.5840/socphiltoday20042014

An Evaluation of the “No Purpose” and some other Theories (such as Oil) For Explaining Al-Qaeda’s Motives

Various causal factors have been offered to explain the motives behind the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacs on 9/11 and at various other times and places throughout the world. Quite often the reasons or purposes are said to include political, economic, religious and ethnic factors. Often historical factors, such as colonialism and neo-colonialism, as well as nationalism, poverty, class divisions and modernization, are included. But some scholars and political figures, quite inconsistently at times, assert that there is no discernable purpose or purposes in these attacks. It is argued, for example, that the sheer magnitude of the death and carnage in the 9/11 attacks suggests no rational purpose in the minds of the perpetrators. The implication is that the Al-Qaeda attacks are allegedly purely irrational. In contrast, I argue that there are flaws and inconsistencies with this No Purpose Theory, and that oil, moreover, shouldn’t be omitted (as it often is) from any plausible broad explanation of the complex mix of causal factors. Needless to say, to suggest that Al-Qaeda had reasons is not to suggest that the reasons were necessarily good or morally justifiable. Then again, among these reasons it is necessary to sort out the goals from the violent tactics so as to discover why, in particular, many Arabs and Muslims sympathize with some of the goals. This whole issue is important because, among other things, if the No Purpose Theory is assumed to be accurate, it would, at least for the problem at hand, eliminate from serious consideration in one fell swoop literally all of the other possible factors (political, religious, economic, etc.). This would be so in spite of the initial reasonableness of the notion that many of these factors have at least some weight or other. But if, contrary to what the No Purpose Theory says, items such as oil are shown to be actually causally important, and are consequently on the table for more extended and open discussion, then there at least would be a better opportunity for more successfully tackling these problems and ameliorating the risk of future terrorist attacks. At least so I will argue.

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