What makes two-dozen British Muslims want to blow up thousands of innocent passengers on jumbo jets? Why does al-Qaida plan hourly to kill civilians? And why does oil-rich Iran wish to "wipe out" Israel?
In short, it's the old blame game, one that over the past century has taken multiple forms.
Once, a tired whine of Islamists was that European colonialists and American oilmen rigged global commerce to "rob" the Middle East of its natural wealth. But they were pretty quiet when the price of crude oil jumped from around an expensive $25 a barrel to an exorbitant $75.
Recently, oil exporters of the Middle East have taken in around an extra $500 billon each year in windfall profits beyond the old lucrative income. It is one of the largest, most sudden and least remarked upon transfers of capital in history.
Another old excuse for Islamist anger was the claim the West had favored autocrats the Shah, the House of Saud, the Kuwaiti royal family in a cynical desire for cheap gas and to prop up strong anti-communist allies.
Some of that complaint was certainly accurate. But since Sept. 11, America has ensured democracy in Afghanistan, spent billions and over 2,500 lives fostering freedom in Iraq, pressured Syria to leave Lebanon, and lectured long-time allies in Egypt and the Gulf to reform. For all this, we are now considered crude interventionists, even when our efforts may well pave the way for radical Muslims to gain legitimacy through plebiscites.
Islamists have and continue today to gripe about Western infidels encroaching on Muslim lands. Osama bin Laden attacked because of American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, or so he said. Hamas and Hezbollah resorted to terror to free Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank, or so they said.
Yet, nothing much has changed since the United States pulled its combat troops out of Saudi Arabia, or after the Israelis departed Gaza and Lebanon, and announced planned withdrawals from parts of the West Bank. Meanwhile, the elected Iraqi government wants American soldiers to stay longer (while the latest polls suggest the American public doesn't agree).
Then there is moaning that the West treats its Muslim immigrants unfairly, despite evidence to the contrary. After all, Muslims build mosques and madrassas all over Europe and the United States; yet Christians cannot worship in Saudi Arabia or have missionaries in Iran. Western residents or immigrants in most Arab nations would not dare demonstrate on behalf of Israel. But in Michigan last week, largely Arab-American crowds chanted "Hezbollah" despite that terrorist organization's long history of murdering Americans.
Another Islamist grumble is that the West supports only Israel. Again, that's hardly true. The Europeans gave plenty of aid to the PLO and Hamas, and their hostility to Israel is well-established. The United States make no bones about aiding Israel, but it also has given tremendous amounts of money to the Palestinians, Egypt ($50 billion so far) and Jordan. And without the United States, Kuwait would be the 19th province of Iraq, the Taliban would rule Afghanistan, Saddam and his sons would still slaughter Kurds and there might not be any Muslims left at all in Kosovo or Bosnia.
The one thing, however, that the United States cannot do to please Islamists is change its liberal character and traditions of Western tolerance. And isn't that the real story behind all these perceived grievances and phantom hurts: the intrusive dynamism of freewheeling Western, and particularly American, culture?
Both its low form of girly magazines and punk rock as well as its impressive literature, art, commerce and technology now saturate the world. And why not? American radical individualism appeals to the innate human desire for freedom and unbridled expression. Westernization subverts most hierarchs, especially in the reactionary world of Islamic fundamentalism, where the mullah, family patriarch or state autocrat can't keep a lid on it. Instantaneous communications have also brought to an insecure Middle Eastern society firsthand views of how much wealthier, freer and more tolerant the outside world is when it is democratic and transparent.
But instead of providing a blueprint for reform, these revelations only incite envy and anger from millions who are advised that parity with the West is found instead by retreating further into 7th-century religious purity.
So never mind the trillions in petrodollars, billions in aid and concessions. Unless we change our very character, or the Middle East achieves success and confidence through Western-style democracy and economic reform, expect more tired scapegoating and violence from radical discontents, from Lebanon to London and well beyond.