What Makes A Suicide Bomber?

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What prompts a man to agree to kill the pilot of a plane he is travelling on? To strap a bomb to his chest and explode himself? Is religion to blame? Do the young Muslim men blowing themselves up in Iraq and Pakistan and other theatres of today’s conflicts really believe that dozens of virgins will attend on them in the afterlife? For nonbelievers, followers of other faiths, and the vast majority of Muslims themselves, such beliefs seem fantastic. And if suicide bombers really seek nothing but death, it means they cannot be deterred.

There is an alternative explanation, but this does not give us many options, either. Are suicide bombers basically suicidal? Are they depressed people out to kill themselves, whose impulses are directed by terrorist masterminds into murderous channels? Might suicide terrorism be more about suicide than about terrorism?

Ariel Merari once wondered if this was so. But then the Israeli psychologist set out to do what most commentators on terrorism do not do — he began to look for evidence. He collected detailed biographical accounts of suicide terrorists. He spent hours interviewing young Arab men and women in Israeli prisons, people who had planned to kill themselves but had seen their missions go awry. And one by one, his preconceptions fell away.

Suicide terrorists are not crazy. If anything, Merari and other psychologists have found that these men and women seem to have fewer mental disorders than the general population. As a group, they are hardly more religious than everyone else. Large numbers of suicide terrorists do not come from religious backgrounds at all. Many are secular, even atheists.

While some seek Rambo-style personal vengeance against groups that have wounded them, most have not directly experienced humiliation at the hands of their enemies. A considerable number come from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. They are college graduates and professionals, doctors, engineers, and architects. Nor do "psychological autopsies" of dead suicide bombers and psychological inventories of captured terrorists show that they are psychopathic automatons or nihilists. In fact, suicide terrorists on average seem more idealistic than their peers. They are often hypersensitive to guilt.

Finally, the men and women Merari studied were not brainwashed simpletons who merely followed orders. They gave Merari thoughtful rationales for their behaviour. Many of the would-be suicide bombers calmly told the psychologist that if they were released from prison, they would attempt another mission. They thought he was crazy for not seeing how their course of action was obvious.

As the psychologist’s preconceptions fell away, he realised that we have misunderstood what motivates suicide bombers — and are therefore handicapped in our fight against them. Suicide bombers are not aberrational; large numbers of ordinary people can be turned into suicide bombers. The notion that suicide terrorists are mentally defective is also wrong. There is no clear psychological profile that predicts whether someone might become a suicide bomber. But there is a very distinct psychological profile of the process that produces suicide bombers.

Merari likened it to a tunnel. Ordinary people go in at one end, and laser-focused suicide terrorists come out the other. At every stage of the tunnel process, individuals in the tunnel believe — as you and I always believe — that they have complete agency, complete autonomy. The tunnel is really a powerful system of manipulation, but the coercion is subtle. This is why suicide bombers rarely go to their deaths feeling coerced. There is no more powerful testament to the power of the hidden brain than the suicide bomber’s tunnel. And it’s a vivid example of how our false assumptions about human behaviour and the brain exact a toll on our ability to make the right decisions as a society.

Suicidal attacks remain a prime weapon of terror and insurgency, from Baghdad to Mumbai — and the recruitment of suicide terrorists extends deep into many societies, ensnaring children and women as well as countless young men. No matter how broad the pool of recruits turns out to be or how often our intuitions encounter disconfirming evidence, we are tempted to fall back on the notion that suicide bombers must be psychologically different from other people, and that they must be mindless automatons programmed to kill themselves and others.

Suicide bombers themselves tell us why they become suicide bombers. In notes and videos, they often say they are motivated by religious beliefs and political causes. These reports confirm our intuitions, so we rarely question them. But, as we’ve done with numerous other examples, we ought to distinguish between what people sincerely believe and what might actually be happening at an unconscious level in their heads.

Suicide bombers may tell us that religious injunctions motivate their actions, but is this a fact or a deduction on their part to explain their behavior — not just to us but to themselves? Global data on suicide bombers, including data on terrorists from predominantly Muslim countries, show that religious belief is neither a necessary nor a sufficient explanation for suicide terrorism — even when such violence is carried out in the name of religion.

If the victims of terrorist attacks are unconsciously influenced by the psychology of large groups, the "peer pressure" of strangers, I believe the perpetrators of such attacks are unconsciously influenced by the psychology of small groups. It is small-group psychology — intense bonds of loyalty between small "bands of brothers" — that is common to suicide terrorism across the world, not religion or any particular political belief. Small-group dynamics don’t explain only how ordinary people can be turned into suicide bombers; they explain how ordinary people can be prompted to do any number of extraordinary things.

The dastardliness of terrorist acts keeps us from seeing that the unconscious motivations of suicide terrorists are not unlike the motivations of many other groups, including those we consider heroes. Small-group psychology explains the behaviour of the ordinary men and women in the uniforms of the New York police department and the New York fire department who calmly walked into the Twin Towers — and to near-certain death — on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Small-group dynamics explain why ordinary people in military uniforms throw their bodies over live hand grenades and why soldiers volunteer for combat missions where the odds of survival are zero. Patriotism is the name we give to such behaviour, but military commanders have known for generations that people don’t give their lives for king, God, and country. That’s what they say. In reality, ordinary men and women give their lives for the sake of the small group of buddies in the trench next to them.

Ariel Merari told me that when Japanese Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi first sought kamikaze volunteers in the fading days of World War II, he lined up a squadron of pilots and said, "The only way we can save Japan is by sacrificing ourselves. I know it’s too much to ask, so if any one of you doesn’t want to do it, step forward."

"Of course," Merari added, "nobody stepped forward. It was group pressure. The people you were standing next to were people with whom you had fought. You valued their opinion. You didn’t want them to think you were a coward."

Small-group dynamics have the power to overturn people’s beliefs about what is and isn’t rational behavior. To the extent that suicide bombers report being troubled by anything, they mostly report they are troubled about being held back too long. Kamikaze pilots worried that Japan was running out of fuel, and that there would not be enough gasoline for them to fly their one-way missions.

The power that small groups wield over individuals explains why in every historical instance that has produced suicide bombers, the supply of men and women willing to volunteer to kill themselves has exceeded the demand. Far from being subpar, many of these volunteers are talented. From the point of view of the manipulative groups that train and produce suicide bombers, why would you take the dumb and the deranged when you can have the smart and the skilled?

Suicide bombers belong to a very exclusive club, and the exclusivity of this club is one of its central appeals. The first step into the tunnel — the funnel that pulls ordinary people into the suicide bomber’s world — is the ego-stroking notion that access to the tunnel is limited, that it is a reward for the most dedicated people, for those with rare talent. To enter the tunnel is to set yourself off from your peers, to be recognised as special.

This is an edited extract from The Hidden Brain: how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives by Shankar Vedantam (Scribe).

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