Saturday, February 03, 2007 / Home UK / UK - Youth and war, a deadly duo / Home UK / UK - Youth and war, a deadly duo

Gangland slayings in the Palestinian territories this week have pitted the Islamist gunmen of Hamas against the secular forces of Fatah. The killings defy civilised norms: in December even children were targeted for murder. But the killings also defy political common sense. Ariel Sharon's wall cuts terrorists off from Israeli targets and what happens? The violence - previously justified with the cause of a Palestinian homeland - continues as if nothing had changed, merely finding its outlet in a new set of targets. This makes it appear that Palestinian violence has never really been about a "cause" at all. The violence is, in a strange way, about itself.

Gunnar Heinsohn, a social scientist and genocide researcher at the University of Bremen, has an explanation for why this might be so. Since its publication in 2003, his eccentric and eye-opening Sons and World Power* (not available in English) has become something of a cult book. In Mr Heinsohn's view, when 15 to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence tends to happen; when large percentages are under 15, violence is often imminent. The "causes" in the name of which that violence is committed can be immaterial. There are 67 countries in the world with such "youth bulges" now and 60 of them are undergoing some kind of civil war or mass killing.

Between 1988 and 2002, 900m sons were born to mothers in the developing world and a careful demographer could almost predict the trouble spots. In the decade leading up to 1993, on the eve of the Taliban takeover, the population of Afghanistan grew from 14m to 22m. By the end of this generation, Afghanistan will have as many people under 20 as France and Germany combined. Iraq had 5m people in 1950 but has 25m now, in spite of a quarter-century of wars. Since 1967, the population of the West Bank and Gaza has grown from 450,000 to 3.3m, 47 per cent of which is under 15. If

Mr Heinsohn is right, then Palestinian violence of recent months and years is not explained by Israeli occupation (which, after all, existed 30 years ago) or poverty (the most violent parts of the Muslim world are not the poorest) or humiliation. It is just violence.

Mr Heinsohn's point is not that the West is "outnumbered". Nor is it that a Malthusian battle for scarce resources is under way. In El Salvador, for instance, the explosion of political killing in the 1970s and 1980s was preceded by a

27 per cent rise in per capita income. The problem, rather, is that in a youth-bulge society there are not enough positions to provide all these young men with prestige and standing. Envy against older, inheriting brothers is unleashed. So is ambition. Military heroism presents itself as a time-honoured way for a second or third son to wrest a position of respectability from an otherwise indifferent society. Societies with a glut of young men become temperamentally different from "singleton societies" such as Europe's, where the prospect of sending an only child to war is almost unthinkable. Europe's pacifism since 1945, in

Mr Heinsohn's view, reflects an inability to wage war, not a disinclination.

Mr Heinsohn's theory accounts for the way "idealistic" wars of national liberation can shift imperceptibly into "pointless" civil wars - as in Ireland 90 years ago or in Africa after decolonisation or in Latin America in the 1980s or in Palestine in recent months. In a broader historical perspective, it explains how a half-dozen fast-growing European countries gradually seized control of almost the entire known world after 1485 and why the fast-growing North American colonies revolted in the 1770s, using as a pretext their "rather silly outrage over taxation without parliamentary representation in London".

If you follow this argument to its logical end point, then the religion of Islam, the focus of so much contemporary strategic discussion, is a great red herring. Islamic countries are certainly growing in importance. They will make up a quarter of the world a decade from now. Of the 27 biggest youth-bulge nations, 13 are Muslim. But if there is a clash between civilisations, it is not a civilisational clash. Religion can be a convenient rationalisation for violent people who do not want to think of themselves as conventional criminals, but this problem is not unique to Islam. In the New World 500 years ago, Mr Heinsohn notes, Spanish conquistadores, too, bowed down and prayed before carrying out slaughters.

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