The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers
Adam Lankford
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 ($27)

The dust had not yet settled after the 9/11 attacks when people began debating whether to call the hijackers cowards. Addressing the nation, President George W. Bush assigned cowardice to the 19 terrorists, articulating a worldview that equates courage with good. Others, including journalists Bill Maher and Susan Sontag, argued that the hijackers could not be cowards, no matter how despicable their methods, because it takes guts to die for a cause. No one, however, questioned the hijackers' dedication to their campaign, until now.

In The Myth of Martyrdom, author Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, rejects the prevailing view of suicide terrorists as radicalized individuals who will do anything for a cause. Rather, he asserts, they are merely unhappy, damaged individuals who want to die. Terrorist organizations recruit people who are in desperate straits for suicide missions and call them martyrs, and we have bought into their propaganda.

Citing recent research, including evaluations of preemptively arrested suicide terrorists, Lankford argues that the psychological profiles of self-destructive killers, whether underwear bombers or school shooters, are not so different from those of the 34,000 Americans who commit suicide every year, burdened by mental illness, social isolation, and personal and professional failures. Underneath the political rhetoric in suicide letters, martyrdom videos and testimonies of grieving family and friends, Lankford finds evidence of deep psychological pain. The young mother who blows herself up in a crowd, for instance, turns out to be escaping the shame of an adulterous affair.

Ironically, most suicide terrorists come from the Muslim world, where the stigma against conventional suicide is high. For those who fear both life and the religious repercussions of suicide, martyrdom seems to offer a loophole—the only honorable death.

But they are only fooling themselves. Lankford draws clear distinctions between true heroism and its pretenders. Real heroes, such as the soldier who throws himself onto a live grenade to save his unit or the firefighter who rushes into a burning building, do not have a death wish; moreover, their actions directly save other people's lives.

Although Lankford builds an impressive case for his view of suicide terrorism, he offers little in the way of practical solutions to reduce these tragic incidents. (Surely airports will not start screening passengers for suicide risk, as he suggests.) In the end, he knows he is playing the propaganda game as well. If the courage assumed of suicide terrorism is its most powerful weapon, we can disarm this threat by denying its practitioners the myth of martyrdom.