Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Speaking no evil

Speaking no evilLast spring, female suicide bombers set off massive explosions that tore apart two subway stations in central Moscow, close to the headquarters of the FSB (the domestic successor agency to the KGB). Dozens of people were killed. Scores were injured. Later that day, Bill Bennett interviewed William Kristol on Bennett's radio show. Bennett, a former high-ranking official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, is a heavyweight in Republican circles. Kristol is an influential neo-conservative and ultra-hawk. "The Russians will be tougher than most countries on this stuff, right?" Bennett asked. "Yeah, they've been pretty brutal in Chechnya and in some ways have brought this, I've got to say, on themselves," Kristol responded. "But, you know, the trouble is that people have legitimate grievances and of course become -- a fair number of Chechens went to Afghanistan to fight against us and the Chechnyans were treated just horribly, have been treated horribly by the Russians. But obviously that's no excuse for being a suicide bomber." Bennett didn't disagree with Kristol's analysis. No reasonable person would. At the fall of the Soviet Union, the unrest in Chechnya was essentially secular. But in the wars that followed, the Russian government annihilated the secular opposition, smashed cities, and ground the populace into the mud. That's when Islamist groups started to flourish. And savage terrorism along with them. Kristol was also right -- of course -- that none of this excuses terrorism. It only helps explain it. Nothing excuses it. What makes this bit of unobjectionable commentary relevant to Canada, today, is the massive blind spot it revealed. To conservatives like Bennett and Kristol, it has always been an Absolute Truth that the actions of the American government have in no way contributed to the growth of Islamist radicalism and terrorism. Anyone who makes even the most modest suggestion otherwise -- by suggesting, for example, that the presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf after the first Gulf War was invaluable to al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts -- is "blaming America." And excusing terrorism. But when terrorists strike Russia? Why, it's entirely different. Conservatives have no problem examining the motives of the terrorists and asking what role the government's actions may have had in inspiring the bloodshed. And they fully understand that to explain is not to excuse. For the record, I am not saying American behaviour in the Middle East has been as abominable as Russia's in Chechnya. It hasn't. But the United States has engaged in a lot of wars. And wars have consequences. "The Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for May's failed Times Square bombing, is now implicated in the alleged jihadist scheme to bomb Ottawa," the Citizen reported yesterday. A decade ago, the Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda but the Taliban themselves were hopelessly parochial. Medieval and brutal, yes. But parochial. They couldn't spell "Canada," much less find it on a map. Now they want to bomb it. But don't you dare suggest that perhaps this rather dramatic change is in some way, to some degree, connected to the presence of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Toronto Star columnist Harroon Siddiqui made that mistake. We must "stop being in denial that there is no connection between the wars we wage and the terrorist mayhem that they trigger, there and here," he wrote. Which prompted the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente to sneer, "in other words, it too is our fault." That's the sneer that's been on conservative lips for a decade now. Except when the bombs explode in Russia. Of course we, in the West, are innocent. Pure. Perfect. That's axiomatic. But imagine you are an Islamist zealot trying to recruit young Muslim men in Canada to fight what you consider a holy war -- a defence of Islam against Jews and Christian Crusaders. That's a tough sell because, well, it's wrong. Really wrong. Not even Noam Chomsky would buy it. But it's what you believe. And what you must convince others to believe. Know what helps the job? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, certainly. Even better is having armies from traditionally Christian countries in Muslim lands. Better still is when those armies clash with Muslims. And best of all? The moments that would make you dance a jig if you weren't a religious fanatic who frowns on dancing? It's when the foreigners mistakenly drop a bomb on a wedding party or cut up a vanload of children. See? It's holy war, brothers. Sign up now. I've talked about this with a Canadian general who has deep personal experience in Afghanistan and who passionately supports Canada's mission. He considers it common sense. His mantra: Avoid violence whenever possible. He doesn't think this excuses terrorism in the slightest. Nor does it mean we should abandon our course of action, at least not necessarily: Blowback is just one cost to be weighed against many other considerations. But to deny that actions have consequences and killing begets killing? That's foolish, whether the victims are Russian, American, or Canadian.