The Truth about Suicide Bombers?
December 12, 2010 5:58 PM   Subscribe

Growing evidence suggests suicide bombers may be just ... well, suicidal. The idea is controversial and contentious, to be sure, but there is a small but growing movement among social scientists that the reasoning behind suicide bombing might be more mundane than religious "fanaticism" or "deluded" ideology.

"... a small cadre of scholars from across the world pushing the rather contentious idea that some suicide bombers may in fact be suicidal. At the forefront is the University of Alabama’s Adam Lankford, who recently published an analysis of suicide terrorism in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior. Lankford cites Israeli scholars who interviewed would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. These scholars found that 40 percent of the terrorists showed suicidal tendencies; 13 percent had made previous suicide attempts, unrelated to terrorism. Lankford finds Palestinian and Chechen terrorists who are financially insolvent, recently divorced, or in debilitating health in the months prior to their attacks. A 9/11 hijacker, in his final note to his wife, describing how ashamed he is to have never lived up to her expectations. Terrorist recruiters admitting they look for the 'sad guys' for martyrdom."
posted by zooropa (22 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Previously on Mefi. Dr. Pape, the subject of that FPP, was interviewed for the above linked article.
posted by zarq at 6:03 PM on December 12, 2010

As anyone who's ever considered suicide (rather a large percentage, no?) can attest to, a purportedly good reason to die for can seem quite welcoming to an individual in a tough circumstance. Why should this movement come as any surprise at all?

One can still suspect and vilify a culture or set of institutions that encourages an individual to believe that suicide is a good idea, let alone violent, homicidal suicide. How does this discount the influence of "fanaticism" or "delusion," religious or otherwise?

tldr: Fundamentalism preys on prolonged adolescent angst? Get right out of town!
posted by es_de_bah at 6:08 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

more mundane than religious "fanaticism"

I dunno, I think that wanting to take others out with you is a pretty good sign that you're a fanatic. It takes more than being suicidal to want to kill.

That's not to say the suicidal part is unimportant. It just strikes me that it can't be the only important factor.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:10 PM on December 12, 2010

That makes sense to me. A lot of suicidal people are stopped by the idea that they could be of use somehow. An acquaintance of mine, an old man, was talking about how he dealt with depression and he phrased it by saying that in his worst moments he always thought to himself that if one day in the future he could help another human being, then the pain of living would be worth it. I can understand how being presented with the idea that in death one would be useful in helping free one's people from oppression would be tempting for a person who is at the edge of committing suicide but hasn't crossed over the final line. Suicide is a tempting idea to the very depressed. Being a hero is always a tempting idea. A combination of these two factors could exert a powerful pull.
posted by Kattullus at 6:12 PM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Go cry, Emojahidin.
posted by ScotchRox at 6:17 PM on December 12, 2010 [7 favorites]

It takes more than being suicidal to want to kill.

It doesn't have to be a desire to kill; it can more simply be a desire to not look like a coward, which many people consider suicide to be.
posted by dobbs at 6:24 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I should amend to say, "It doesn't have to be a desire to kill; it can more simply be a desire to not look or feel like a coward, which many people consider suicide to be, including many who are suicidal."
posted by dobbs at 6:28 PM on December 12, 2010

This sounds really, really obvious to me, and I'm sad that some people won't see how true this is. Suicide can be an aggressive act ("oh yeah, I'll show them!") and it's not out of the bounds of sanity to see how this could fit in with the other cultural and religious factors that go into creating a suicide bomber.

People routinely think that the most religious members are the ones most likely to become suicide bombers, but this is not true. The 9/11 hijackers went to a strip club shortly before they did their thing. So, if it's not purity of religion that's the sole factor behind suicide bombers, then what could it be? Why *not* pre-existing suicidial ideation, along with other factors?
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:29 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I dunno, I think that wanting to take others out with you is a pretty good sign that you're a fanatic.

I think the point here is that the urge to take yourself out and be a hero is what comes before the fanaticism, not vice versa.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:31 PM on December 12, 2010

Sticherbeast, while adolescence is filled with selfish hero fantasies and guilt-ridden self-loathing, almost universally, the culture within which a person comes of age is still very relevant.

In the broad realm of helpful advice from elder to squab, offering troubled teens a nominally heroic escape from their stress and confusion by means of violent, political suicide is a pretty fucked up thing to do.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:47 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Actually, wanting to take others out with you is just a sign of excessive egotism in a suicidal situation.

The linkage between suicide rates in population and terrorism / political violence is quite strong. This suggests that studying terrorism as public health problem and applying public health approaches is worthy of consideration. Unfortunately, all the money is going to law enforcement and the military, both of which are institutions that are actively hostile to public health ideas.

This is not a new perception, but it's still not a popular one in terrorist studies. Back in the 1980's increased rates of suicide correlated with Posse Comitatus recruitment in the Midwest. See James Corcoran's Bitter Harvest for these observations.

US domestic terrorists, particularly white supremacists, frequently get wrapped up in murder/suicide or "suicide by cop" incidents. James Aho points this out in Politics of Righteousness.

Carl Drega is a case in point. So are Tim McVeigh and Buford Furrow. Not to mention Joseph Andrew Stack. All of these jerks were terrorists, but that's not the way it gets played, due to the "no true white man" fallacy.

My favorite incident involved a militia group during the 1990s that was holding firearms training. The wacknut giving the training told the militiamen, "You always have to treat every firearm as if it was loaded. Always. Otherwise, you can end up with problems like this." Whereupon, he put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. It was loaded and functioned perfectly. One less wacknut and a bunch of very sober militialoons.

The Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide terrorism and Tamils are Hindu, not Muslim. See Mike Davis, Buda's Wagon for some background on the role of LTTE on the current climate of suicide terrorism.

So there is at least anecdotal evidence for linking suicidal behavior with terrorism in a cross-cultural sampling independent of religious beliefs. This sort of blows the spine out of those claiming some special link between suicide terrorism and Islam. Frankly, such a link smacks of playing into Islamophobia.

Which is way more likely than you might think. Terrorism studies are not independently financed in most places, funders have agendas and research that caters to those agendas get funded. One of the outcomes of Bush being in the White House during 9/11 is that the most knowledgeable and best informed people in terrorism studies got elbowed aside by a bunch of racists and ideologues sucking up to Bush and Co.

The problem with Richard Pape is he appears to be selecting his data to fit his hypotheses, just as he accuses Lankford of doing. I'd suggest that Pape's understanding of the problem is rooted closer to home than he would admit. Pape's much-ballyhooed study ignores US domestic terrorism entirely, since that is data that utterly contradicts his results.
posted by warbaby at 6:50 PM on December 12, 2010 [22 favorites]

(This Journal of Aggression and Violent Behaviour sounds like an interesting read.)
posted by empatterson at 9:40 PM on December 12, 2010

Terrorism and Political Violence is one of the more influential journals.

Pape's database is suspect because it doesn't have Frank Corder in it, for instance. But it does have 9/11. Why one and not the other?

Databases of incidents are tricky. You have to include everything or they aren't worth much. Likewise, you have to grade the entries for accuracy and reliability. The two databases that I've relied on most are the RAND/St. Andrews chronology of terrorism (which was a real game changer) and the Monterey Institute of International Studies database of WMD incidents.

One example of database abuse is Jessica Stern's work on WMD that fails to distinguish between hoaxes, threats and actual attacks. When they get all lumped together, a hoax becomes indistinguishable from a mass casualty event because both were indiscriminately labeled "incidents."

A very real problem in terrorism studies is the tendency to chase funding by emphasizing the worst possible case. Nobody ever got funded by minimizing a threat. So there is an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate the risks and to turn hazy possibilities into dire threats.

I wish Lankford and his collaborators the best. If suicide prevention and anti-brutalization was part of anti-terrorism, it would make a difference. Unfortunately, counter-terrorism (fighting terrorism) is the name of the game. There's almost nobody doing anti-terrorism (preventing violence.)
posted by warbaby at 10:09 PM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I look forward to the war on depression.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:54 PM on December 12, 2010 [8 favorites]

I think among social scientists there is fairly broad consensus in support of Robert Pape's very well supported study suggesting that suicide bombing is inextricably linked to territorial nationalism. That is, that in most every case, suicide bombers are individually motivated by a belief that they are killing themselves in defense of their territorial homeland which is occupied in some sense by the nation represented by the bomber's victims.

This of course does not exclude an occasional or even frequent 'suicidal motivation' layered on top of the territorial nationalism ideology. Certainly there are plenty of anecdotal accounts of suicide bombers who were in a suicidal depression. But to me, the Globe article linked seems to be a combination of tautology (they killed themselves after all!), and anecdote, which is of course fraught with selection bias.
posted by jackbrown at 3:30 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seems to me that it's like this: "Life sucks and I want to die. I might as well die doing something useful, and/or directly harmful to those who are the proximate cause of life sucking."

Probably much the same reasoning as prompts more mundane murder-suicides: "I don't want to live any more, and it's that person's fault that this is the case. I'm going to go kill them, and then myself."

In the absence of depression, the human desire to live can be astonishingly high. So if you would prefer your soldiers to gladly give their lives for your cause, it is best to first make them depressed.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:34 AM on December 13, 2010

Hmm, prior post is a prime example of the dangers and potential embarrassment of not RTFT'ing.
posted by jackbrown at 3:37 AM on December 13, 2010

Sad music saves lives.
posted by Free word order! at 4:28 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The problem with Richard Pape is he appears to be selecting his data to fit his hypotheses, just as he accuses Lankford of doing. I'd suggest that Pape's understanding of the problem is rooted closer to home than he would admit. Pape's much-ballyhooed study ignores US domestic terrorism entirely, since that is data that utterly contradicts his results.

I'm not convinced this is so. The database doesn't ignore domestic terrorism so much as it hasn't gotten to it yet. (The 9/11 attacks are in the database, which while not the act of domestic agents, did happen on US soil.) For the moment the database only covers suicide bombing incidents from 1981 to early 2004. It's a work in progress, and won't include Corder or for that matter Andrew Joseph Stack, because their deaths happened later.

There haven't been that many suicide bombings here in the US, and according to Pape we're not the sort of place where such bombings are likely to happen, because this isn't occupied territory. Terrorist acts committed on US soil are rarely suicide bombings. Terrorism committed as a protest of US policies are typically not suicide bombings, either.

In theory, an argument could be made that a lack of Native American suicide bombings on US soil runs counter to Pape's conclusions.

But there isn't exactly much historical evidence to review when it comes to domestic suicide bombings. 1997 was the first attempt at a suicide bombing on US soil, by Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer and Lafi Khalil. It failed. But the attempt was also in response to an occupation.

Reports were that Corder was severely intoxicated when he took off in Maryland. I'm not sure he's a good example of anything other than flying while drunk, severely depressed and possibly suicidal is a really bad idea. I'm no expert, but having read Andrew Stack's manifesto, he certainly seemed angry and oppressed.
posted by zarq at 6:57 AM on December 13, 2010

Pape's CPOST database has one and only one suicide terrorism incident in the US from 1981 through 2008. The database is not comprehensive and thus incorporates selection bias in the dataset. If the bias is present in the data, it will also be present in statistics drawn from that data.

If the RAND/St. Andrews chronology was used as the initial dataset, would the results be different? Maybe yes, maybe no. The RAND chronology doesn't seek out information on suicidal motivation, so it would have to be inferred in many cases.

It seems to me that Pape's reliance on suicide bombing (and even then his cases are not restricted to bombings only) eliminated many cases that may have been suicidally motivated but not been bombings, etc.

Ehud Sprinzak got different conclusions looking at an earlier period. He found that brutalization was a very significant influence.

Chicken and egg :: Occupation and brutalization. If an occupation isn't brutal, then is it really an occupation? Where's the suicide terrorism from the Nazi occupation of Europe, the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe or the American occupation of Germany and Japan? If Pape's results are meaningful, they should be historically and geographically extensible.

The linkage between nationalism and political violence is well established. The relationship between suicide and terrorism needs more exploration. Some general studies of suicide rates compared with political violence, especially if done in a very broad cross-cultural way, will probably show a linkage. Suicide data is not gathered uniformly or with the equal degrees of care in all places.

Data on terrorism is especially difficult because of the tremendous problems of defining what is terrorism in a consistent way. The dismissal of domestic terrorism in the US is just part of the problem, but it's one that occupied a lot of my time. If you define terrorism as political violence by sub-state actors, it's a very different kettle of fish from defining terrorism as resistance to political regimes that we happen to like or terrorists as people that we disagree with.

Pape's work is the newest and most loudly promoted. It's not comprehensive and it doesn't address issues raised by older studies. Like I said, there's a lot of selection bias in the funding of terrorism studies.
posted by warbaby at 7:06 AM on December 13, 2010

Should have previewed...

"There haven't been that many suicide bombings here in the US, and according to Pape we're not the sort of place where such bombings are likely to happen, because this isn't occupied territory."

That seems like circular logic. Narrowing to the tactic to suicide bombing is exactly the sort of thing that I'm talking about. To get a reasonable analysis, you have to include the other cases of terrorism and show why there is a difference. 9/11 isn't a bombing, but it is in the database. Columbine included an attempted bombing (the bomb didn't work) but did feature suicide.

My point here is broader than just Pape. If terrorism studies rule out many domestic cases as not being terrorism (as the FBI has famously done in the case of right-wing domestic terrorism), then you can't make meaningful statements about similar acts of political violence if some are ruled terrorism and others aren't.

If Pape spent more time discussing the cases he excluded from his study, I'd be more inclined to accept his results as general rather than very narrow and specific. He's making some good points about narrow and specific cases, but he's not doing so well in the more general case. He also seems to be suffering from a variation of the "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" fallacy. Which is another way of saying that if Pape's results truely are general, then it should say something about domestic terrorism, not just the incidence of the tactic of suicide bombing.

And, getting back to the fpp, the work Lankford is doing looks to have a more general application.

If I've got an axe to grind here, it's that terrorism needs to be viewed more as a public health problem than a form of warfare if we want to reduce the level of political violence in the world.
posted by warbaby at 7:30 AM on December 13, 2010

I don't doubt that general suicidal tendencies could be or are contributory, but I do think there is, as both Dawkins and Harris suggest, a much simpler explanation:

The believe what they claim to believe.

There is virtual unanimity among the messages left behind by suicide bombers, and this is corroborated by failed suicide bombers who have spoken about their motivations. In almost all instances they reported that they were motivated by a love of martyrdom, by the knowledge that by striking at the infidel in that manner they would (after being blown to bits) be instantly transported to the highest and most pleasurable garden of paradise. Many also reported that they were concerned that their families, friends, etc might somehow fail to gain entry to paradise, and that since they were martyrs they would be permitted to get their family, friends, etc into paradise on their coattails.

Fanaticism is not required for this analysis to make sense, only sincere belief.

Obviously more general suicidal thoughts can't be ignored as possible additional motivators. But I think more immediate concerns can't be ignored either, such as the promises of unpunished carnal delights in paradise contrasting with the rigidly anti-sex reality.

But mostly I think we should simply take their statements at face value. They believed, sincerely, that martyrs were granted special treatment in paradise and they saw value in acquiring that special treatment thus they sought martyrdom. As Dawkins wrote on the topic, it is rare to find human behavior so clearly and satisfactorily explained.

This, I must add, is not religious fanaticism, but simply religious belief. Our beliefs shape our actions, if you believe what the men in funny hats say about paradise, why wouldn't you want that as soon as you could get it? Why stick with the mundane and often unpleasant existence here if you can get a quick ticket to a better afterlife?

Speaking as an atheist I find it difficult to accept that all religious people truly and sincerely believe what they claim to. All religious beliefs seem so farcical to me that the idea of anyone **TRULY** believing any of them is very difficult for me to wrap my mind around.

But I must assume they do believe what they claim to believe. And going from there why should I doubt the person who claims to believe that martyrdom will result in an afterlife that is better and more privileged than that accorded to a non-martyr believer? I don't doubt the sincerity of belief among Creationists when they claim that the universe was brought into existence in 144 hours around 6,000 years ago.

In both cases I think they're wrong, but why should I doubt the sincerity of their belief, or their claim that this belief both explains and fully justifies the harmful actions they take? Not that I'm equating the harm wrought by Creationists with that of suicide bombers, Creationists don't cause death directly after all.

But why should I doubt the suicide bomber when they claim to be motivated by love of martyrdom anymore than I doubt the Creationist when he claims that he is wrecking education because he believes the universe really did get started only 6,000 years ago? They have both, if you accept that they truly believe what they claim to, made a perfectly rational decision.

And, for suicide bombers even more than Creationists, it is the most rational possible decision; provided that you accept their axioms. Paradise is good, but there are better and worse grades of paradise. Martyrs are granted the best possible paradise. Therefore seeking martyrdom is the most rational course of action, yes your Earthly life is cut short, but so what? Paradise is better than your Earthly life by definition, ergo suicide bombing.
posted by sotonohito at 9:42 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

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