ADVERTISEMENT
latest stories:
See Inside January 2006

Murdercide

Science unravels the myth of suicide bombers



BRAD HINES
"You should be very proud of me. It's an honor, and you will see the results, and everybody will be happy.... whatever you do, head high, with a goal, never be without [a] goal, always have a goal in front of you and always think, 'what for.'" --Final letter to his wife by Ziad Jarrah, September 11 terrorist who crashed Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field

Police have an expression for people who put themselves into circumstances that force officers to shoot them: "suicide by cop." Following this lingo, suicide bombers commit "suicide by murder," so I propose we call such acts "murdercide": the killing of a human or humans with malice aforethought by means of self-murder.

The reason we need semantic precision is that suicide has drawn the attention of scientists, who understand it to be the product of two conditions quite unrelated to murdercide: ineffectiveness and disconnectedness. According to Florida State University psychologist Thomas Joiner, in his remarkably revealing scientific treatise Why People Die by Suicide (Harvard University Press, 2006): "People desire death when two fundamental needs are frustrated to the point of extinction; namely, the need to belong with or connect to others, and the need to feel effective with or to influence others."

By this theory, the people who chose to jump from the World Trade Center rather than burning to death were not suicidal; neither were the passengers on Flight 93 who courageously fought the hijackers for control of the plane that ultimately crashed into a Pennsylvania field; and neither were the hijackers who flew the planes into the buildings.

The belief that suicide bombers are poor, uneducated, disaffected or disturbed is contradicted by science. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, found in a study of 400 Al Qaeda members that three quarters of his sample came from the upper or middle class. Moreover, he noted, "the vast majority--90 percent--came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that's usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways." Nor were they sans employment and familial duties. "Far from having no family or job responsibilities, 73 percent were married and the vast majority had children.... Three quarters were professionals or semiprofessionals. They are engineers, architects and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion."


Murderciders appear in posters like star athletes.

Joiner postulates that a necessary condition for suicide is habituation to the fear about the pain involved in the act. How do terrorist organizations infuse this condition in their recruits? One way is through psychological reinforcement. University of Haifa political scientist Ami Pedahzur writes in Suicide Terrorism (Polity Press, 2005) that the celebration and commemoration of suicide bombings that began in the 1980s changed a culture into one that idolizes martyrdom and its hero. Today murderciders appear in posters like star athletes.

Another method of control is "group dynamics." Says Sageman: "The prospective terrorists joined the jihad through preexisting social bonds with people who were already terrorists or had decided to join as a group. In 65 percent of the cases, preexisting friendship bonds played an important role in this process." Those personal connections help to override the natural inclination to avoid self-immolation. "The suicide bombers in Spain are another perfect example. Seven terrorists sharing an apartment and one saying, 'Tonight we're all going to go, guys.' You can't betray your friends, and so you go along. Individually, they probably would not have done it."

One method to attenuate murdercide, then, is to target dangerous groups that influence individuals, such as Al ?Qaeda. Another method, says Princeton University economist Alan B. Krueger, is to increase the civil liberties of the countries that breed terrorist groups. In an analysis of State Department data on terrorism, Krueger discovered that "countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which have spawned relatively many terrorists, are economically well off yet lacking in civil liberties. Poor countries with a tradition of protecting civil liberties are unlikely to spawn suicide terrorists. Evidently, the freedom to assemble and protest peacefully without interference from the government goes a long way to providing an alternative to terrorism." Let freedom ring.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Holiday Sale

Limited Time Only!

Get 50% off Digital Gifts

Hurry sale ends 12/31 >

X

Email this Article

X