Suicide Terrorism

Suicide bombers have distinctive personality traits.

By Kaja Perina, published on October 1, 2002 - last reviewed on August 30, 2004

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.

But the rationale of despair is a ?double discourse aimed at
Western audiences,? according to Scott Atran, Ph.D., an anthropologist at
the National Center for Scientific Research in France. ?Muslims are told
that these bombers have everything to live for, otherwise the sacrifice
doesn't make sense.? Atran's book,
In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of
Religion
, cites a recent study of 900 Muslims in Gaza who were
adolescents during the first Palestinian
intifada(1987 to 1993). Exposure to violence
correlated more strongly with pride and social cohesion than with
depression or antisocial behavior. Indeed, the Gaza teens expressed more
hope for the future than did a control group of Bosnian Muslims.

Ultimately, profiling suicide bombers may be a fascinating but
futile psychological parlor game. Terrorism experts such as Ehud
Sprinzak, Ph.D., an Israeli professor of political science, argue that
the best way to halt the attacks is not to study suicide bombers
themselves, but the terrorists who press these young men and women into
their last, ghastly service.