Poverty, Global Trade Justice, and the Roots of Terrorism

To combat terrorism, we should address the root causes of poverty, says former "economic hit man"

The following is adapted from Hoodwinked: An Economic Hitman Reveals Why the World Financial Markets Imploded--and What We Need to Do to Remake Them. Random House, 2009:

Navy Seal snipers rescued an American cargo ship captain
unharmed and killed three Somali pirates in a daring operation in the
Indian Ocean on Sunday, ending a five-day standoff between United
States naval forces and a small band of brigands in a covered orange
lifeboat off the Horn of Africa.

The New York Times published that article in April 2009.
The very words "pirates," "daring operation," "standoff," and
"brigands" were typical of the U.S. media; they made it sound as though
white-hated cowboys had ridden to the rescue of a town besieged by
Billy the Kid and his gang. Having lived in that part of the world as
an economic hit man, I knew there was another side to what had
happened. I wondered why no one was asking about the causes of piracy.

I recalled my visits with the Bugi people when I was sent to the
Indonesian island of Sulawesi in the early 1970s. The Bugi had been
infamous pirates since the time of the East India companies in the
1600s and 1700s. Their ferocity inspired returning European sailors to
discipline their disobedient children with threats that "the bugiman
will get you." In the 1970s, we feared that they would attack our oil
tankers as they passed through the vital Strait of Malacca.

I sat with one of their elders on the Sulawesi shore one afternoon. We watched his people build a sailing galleon, known as a prahu,
much as they had for centuries. Like a gigantic beached whale, it was
high and dry, propped upright by rows of gnarled stakes that resembled
roots sprouting from its hull. Dozens of men hustled about it, working
with adzes, hatchets, and hand drills. I expressed the concerns of my
government to him, intimating that we would retaliate if the oil lanes
were threatened.

The "terrorists" I have found in Andean caves and desert villages are
people whose families were forced off their farms by oil companies,
hydroelectric dams, or "free trade" agreements, whose children are
starving, and who want nothing more than to return to their families
with food, seeds, and deeds to lands they can cultivate.

The old man glared at me. "We were not pirates in the old days," he
said, his bushy white hair bobbing indignantly. "We only fought to
defend our lands against Europeans who came to steal our spices. If we
attack your ships today, it is because they take the trade away from
us; your 'stink ships' foul our waters with oil, destroying our fish
and starving our children." Then he shrugged. "Now, we're at a loss."
His smile was disarming. "How can a handful of people in wooden sailing
ships fight off America's submarines, airplanes, bombs, and missiles?"

A few days after the rescue, the Times ran an editorial entitled "Fighting Piracy in Somalia" that concluded:

Yet left to its own devices, Somalia can only become more
noxious, spreading violence to its East African neighbors, breeding
more extremism and making shipping through the Gulf of Aden ever more
dangerous and costly. Various approaches are being discussed, such as
working through Somalia's powerful clans to reconstitute first local
and then regional and national institutions. These must be urgently

Nowhere did the Times-or any of the other media outlets
that I read, heard, or saw-attempt to analyze the roots of the problem
in Somalia. Debates abounded about whether to arm ships' crews and send
more Navy vessels to the region. There was that vague reference to
reconstituting regional and national institutions, but what exactly did
the author mean by that? Institutions that would truly help, like free
hospitals, schools, and soup kitchens? Or local militias, prisons, and
Gestapo-style police forces?

The pirates were fishermen whose livelihoods had been destroyed.
They were fathers whose children were hungry. Ending piracy would
require helping them live sustainable, dignified lives. Could
journalists not understand this? Had none of them visited the slums of

Finally, NPR's Morning Edition on May 6 aired a report from
Gwen Thompkins; she interviewed a pirate who went by the name Abshir
Abdullahi Abdi. "We understand what we're doing is wrong," Abdi
explained. "But hunger is more important than any other thing."

Thompkins commented, "Fishing villages in the area have been
devastated by illegal trawlers and waste dumping from industrialized
nations. Coral reefs are reportedly dead. Lobster and tuna have
vanished. Malnutrition is high."

You might think we would have learned from Vietnam, Iraq, the "Black
Hawk down" incident in Somalia back in 1993, and other such forays,
that military responses seldom discourage insurgencies. In fact, they
often do the opposite; foreign intervention is likely to infuriate
local populations, motivate them to support the rebels, and result in
an escalation of resistance activities. That was the way it happened
during the American Revolution, Latin America's wars for independence
from Spain, and in colonial Africa, Indochina, Soviet-occupied
Afghanistan, and so many other places.

Blaming pirates and other desperate people for our problems is a
distraction we cannot afford if we truly want to find a solution to the
crises confronting us. These incidents are symptoms of our failed economic model.
They are to our society the equivalent of a heart attack to an
individual. We send in Navy Seals to rescue the hostages, as we would
hire doctors to perform a coronary artery bypass. But it is essential
to admit that both are reactions to an underlying problem. The patient
needs to address the reasons his or her heart failed in the first
place, such as smoking, diet, and lack of exercise. The same is true
for piracy and all forms of terrorism.

Our children's futures are interlocked with the futures of children
born in the fishing villages of Somalia, the mountains of Burma
(Myanmar), and the jungles of Colombia. When we forget that fact, when
we see those children as remote, as somehow disconnected from our
lives, as merely the offspring of pirates, guerrillas, or drug runners,
we point the gun at our own progeny as well as at the desperate fathers
and mothers in lands that seem so far away but in reality are our next
door neighbors.

Every time I read about the actions we take to protect ourselves
from so-called terrorists, I have to wonder at the narrow-mindedness of
our strategy. Although I have met such people in Bolivia, Ecuador,
Egypt, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, and Nicaragua, I have never met one
who wanted to take up a gun. I know there are crazed men and women who
kill because they cannot stop themselves, serial killers, and
mass-murderers. I am certain that members of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and
other such groups are driven by fanaticism, but such extremists are
able to recruit sizable numbers of followers only from populations that
feel oppressed or destitute. The "terrorists" I have found in Andean
caves and desert villages are people whose families were forced off
their farms by oil companies, hydroelectric dams, or "free trade"
agreements, whose children are starving, and who want nothing more than
to return to their families with food, seeds, and deeds to lands they
can cultivate.

In Mexico, many of the guerrillas and narcotraffickers once owned
farms where they grew corn. They lost their livelihoods when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) gave
subsidized U.S. producers an unfair price advantage. Here is how the
Organic Consumers Organization, a nonprofit that represents more than
850,000 members, subscribers, and volunteers, describes it:

Since NAFTA came into effect on January 1, 1994, U.S. corn
exports to Mexico have almost doubled to some 6 million metric tons in
2002. NAFTA eliminated quotas limiting corn imports . . . but allowed
U.S. subsidy programs to remain in place-promoting dumping of corn into
Mexico by U.S. agribusiness at below the cost of production. . . . The
price paid to farmers in Mexico for corn fell by over 70 percent. . .

The passage above exposes the dark side of "free trade" policies.
U.S. presidents and our Congress have implemented regulations that
prohibited other countries from imposing tariffs on U.S. goods or
subsidizing locally grown produce that might compete with our
agribusinesses while permitting us to maintain our own import barriers
and subsidies, thus giving U.S. corporations an unfair advantage. "Free trade" is a euphemism;
it prohibits others from enjoying the benefits offered to the
multinationals. It does not, however, regulate against the pollution
that is melting glaciers, the land grabs, and the sweatshops.

Father Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, a Nicaraguan priest who ministered
to Sandinista guerrillas and is now president of the U.N. General
Assembly, has a firsthand appreciation for such euphemisms and the
power of words used to sway public perceptions. "Terrorism is not
really an 'ism,' " he told me. "There's no connection between the
Sandinistas who fought the Contras and Al Qaeda, or between Colombia's
FARC and fishermen turned pirates in Africa and Asia. Yet they are all
called 'terrorists.' That's just a convenient way for your government
to convince the world that there is another enemy 'ism' out there, like
communism used to be. It diverts attention from the very real problems."

Our narrow-minded attitudes and the policies that result from them
foment violence, rebellions, and wars. In the long run, almost no one
benefits from attacking the people we label as "terrorists." With one
glaring exception: the corporatocracy.

Those who own and run the companies that build ships, missiles, and
armored vehicles; make guns, uniforms, and bulletproof vests;
distribute food, soft drinks, and ammunition; provide insurance,
medicines, and toilet paper; construct ports, airstrips, and housing;
and reconstruct devastated villages, factories, schools, and
hospitals-they, and only they, are the big winners.

The rest of us are hoodwinked by that one, loaded word: terrorist.

The current economic collapse has awakened us
to the importance of regulating and reigning in the people who control
the businesses that benefit from the misuse of words like terrorism and
who perpetrate other scams. We recognize today that white-collared
executives are not a special, incorruptible breed. Like the rest of us,
they require rules. Yet it is not enough for us to reestablish
regulations that separate investment banks from commercial banks and
insurance companies, reinstate anti-usury laws, and impose guidelines
to ensure that consumers are not burdened by credit they cannot afford.
We cannot simply return to solutions that worked before. Only by
adopting new strategies that promote global environmental and social responsibility will we safeguard the future.

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.