In 1983, when Shiite Muslims died in suicide attacks on American military barracks in Beirut, psychologists labeled them mentally unstable individuals with death wishes. Today experts agree that the acts of suicide bombers are more attributable to organizational masterminds than to personal psychopathology. Yet they continue to debate just how religion and social reinforcement transform sane human beings into sentient bombs.
Ariel Merari, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University in Israel, argues that terrorist groups such as Hamas appeal to recruits' religious piety or patriotic sentiments, but neither fanaticism nor nationalism alone are ?necessary or sufficient? to foment suicide terrorism. The key ingredient may be susceptibility to indoctrination. In a recent study of 32 suicide bombers, Merari found no illuminating socioeconomic or personality factors, such as social dysfunction or suicidal symptoms. But almost all the subjects were young, unattached males, a cohort vulnerable to violent organizations in any society.
Attempts to understand suicide terrorism are understandably culture-bound. Western media emphasize a Palestinian society awash in calls to self-destruct: Iraq and Saudi Arabia pay thousands of dollars to the families of suicide terrorists, and schools teach reverence for martyrs alongside arithmetic. Palestinian mental health professionals counter that Westerners ignore the despair inherent in this logic. Mahmud Sehwail, M.D., a psychiatrist in Ramallah, says that post-traumatic stress disorder abounds among the potential ?? and eventual ??s uicide bombers he treats and cites surveys indicating that more than a quarter of all Palestinians are clinically depressed.