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Opinion: What motivates a terrorist?

Answers to what shaped Faisal Shahzad lie not only in Pakistan, but here in the US.

Shahzad had studied hard, got a decent job, but ended up broke with his Connecticut house foreclosed. It is not too hard in recession times to blame society for personal misfortune. And it is a wonder to me that there is not more violence on the part of people losing their jobs, not for anything they did, but because of the financial mistakes and risk-taking of rapacious money managers. “Hardship always brings people back to God,” a Hamas leader, Sheik Younis al- Astal once said. “It’s like sickness.”

I don’t know if this would apply to Shahzad, but some Muslim immigrants to this country are horrified by what they see as a materialistic, overly sexualized society. This was the case for one of violent Islam’s founding fathers, Sayyid Qutb, when he came to America in 1948 to study. He found the U.S. “violent by nature ... having little respect for human life.” If you believe that you might be less inhibited by taking American life.

Terrorism expert Jessica Stern has written of the “pernicious effect of repeated, small humiliations that add up to a feeling of nearly unbearable despair and frustration, and a willingness on the part of some to do anything — even commit atrocities — in the belief that attacking the oppressor will restore their sense of dignity.”

One can speculate that an injured sense of dignity, fueled by economic failure in America, and stoked by radicals Islamists in Pakistan, might be found in Shahzad’s motivational makeup. Add to that all the harm being done to innocent Muslim civilians in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, images that bombard the internet — and were visible to Shahzad in Waziristan — and you can fathom the wish to do harm in Times Square, with the blessing of radical clerics.
It will be interesting to learn if the Taliban urged Shahzad to seek American citizenship so their new recruit could pass more easily into the U.S.

Another terrorism expert, Louise Richardson, has written that Revenge, Renown, and Reaction are the three Rs of terrorism. One can speculate that Shahzad wanted revenge for his perceived failures in the U.S., and for Pakistani deaths caused by American drones. He might have expected renown when he was safely back in Taliban circles in Pakistan. And he might also have hoped for American over-reaction, so embodied in the proposal by his own Connecticut senator, Joe Lieberman, and sadly backed by Massachusetts senator, Scott Brown, as well as John McCain, that American citizens can be stripped of their citizenship by merely being charged with associating with terrorists — charged not convicted.

If such a law should be enacted it would do more harm to the United States than a dozen car bombs could ever do.