Undercover Economist

Professional killers

The attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow three weeks ago surprised many people for two reasons: that the suspects were all educated medical professionals rather than desperate, uneducated vagrants; and that the job should have been botched so badly.

That educated professionals might turn to terrorism should not, by now, be much of a surprise. My colleague Gideon Rachman has reminded us that Osama bin Laden is an engineer who comes from a fabulously wealthy family and his deputy is a doctor.

The economist Alan Krueger, author of a new book called What Makes a Terrorist?, explores this phenomenon with a systematic study of the evidence. He concludes that terrorists, political extremists and those who commit hate crimes are often relatively well-to-do.

This is a difficult thing to prove, not least because each of those categories is controversial and there is a world of difference between, say, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. Krueger dips into different sources of data, each one imperfect, trying to build up a compelling picture from opinion polls, biographies of terrorists and broader studies.

Opinion polls from Gaza and the West Bank, conducted in December 2001, show that students and professionals are more likely than the unemployed or labourers to say that terrorism can be justified, and more likely to deny that a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv night club should be described as “a terrorist act”…

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