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Understanding the Suicide Bomber

The terms "crazy" and "inhuman" miss the mark

One of the most puzzling phenomena to emerge from the various ongoing conflicts in and around the Middle East is the suicide bomber. How do we explain suicide bombing? An initial impulse may be to ascribe suicide bombing to the lunacy of the bombers themselves, or to something inherent in the ‘mentality' of the bombers' ethnic or religious group--which to those on the outside always appears as uniquely backwards and brutal.

Ascribing a behavior to individual ‘craziness' or to a group's ‘mentality' is a seductive impulse--it offers an easy solution that absolves ‘us' and implicates ‘them.' It releases one from the burden of seeking nuanced understanding of complex processes. That explanation, alas, is deeply flawed.

First, using ‘craziness' to explain suicide bombers is circular reasoning. (Why did he blow himself up? Because he was crazy. How do you know he was crazy? Because he blew himself up.) To become useful as an explanation, the proclaimed ‘craziness' should have been verified beforehand, in unrelated contexts. In most cases, evidence of what we would consider individual insanity or mental illness is not a feature of future suicide bombers' profiles.

Second, attributing suicide bombing to internal properties of the bombers exemplifies what psychologists call, ‘the actor-observer effect,' a common, and commonly wrong, inclination to attribute the lousy behavior of others to their personalities while excusing our own bad behavior on account of circumstance. You're late to the meeting because you're lazy. I'm late on account of heavy traffic.

Third, episodes of brutality and backwardness have periodically visited every religion and ethnicity. The ‘mentality' explanation is also the seed of all racism--Jews, for example, were said over millennia to have a seedy, greedy mentality--and also the seed of despair, since ‘mentality' is innate and unchangeable.

To approach a fuller understanding of suicide bombers, we need to apply a more nuanced analysis.

First, we have to acknowledge the human romance with brutality. As the British philosopher Jonathan Glover has noted, our species' fascination and preoccupation with inflicting brutality on itself, the sheer innovative effort dedicated to the task, and the visceral thrill of it are akin in their intensity to the human preoccupation with sex. Brutality for our species is not just a means to an end. It is an end in itself. This is not unique to Muslims, or to the insane.

Then there is the power of society. Society gives us language, a worldview, an identity, a set of rules and rituals to live by. Society, in this sense, is God (with one difference: the existence of society is not in dispute and is supported by observable evidence). You are created in your society's image. Once society settles on a set of values and the accepted ways of obtaining them, individuals within the society, any society, are compelled to follow the path. Suicide bombing, in this context, is but the latest twisted incarnation in a long tradition of socially-sanctioned brutal rituals enacted in different societies throughout history--from foot binding and witch hunting to duals, lynching, and systematic war rape.

An additional factor is what I will call ‘true believerism,' which is the conviction that you and your group are in possession of The Truth. We tend to evaluate true believerism in terms of content, and as such we see it as dangerous and odd in others but not in ourselves. Somehow, our God stories--the resurrection of the dead, the parting of the sea, the animals on the arc--are glorious, deep, and perfectly laudable but their stories--the virgins, and 70 of them!--are strange, laughable, and loony.

True believerism, however, derives its destructive force not from content but from process. Once the ‘true believing' process is in place, you can pour in any content with similarly destructive results. Whatever document you put into a shredder will be shredded, not by virtue of what the document says but by virtue of what a shredder does.

Today in the Middle East, for example, the true believers on the Palestinian side and those on the Israeli side differ greatly on content, each promoting their own God, goal, and grievance; but process-wise they are similar, bent on annihilation of the brutal and backward ‘other' and willing to give their lives for it.

Understood in the context of our human fascination with violence, the power of society, and the twisting force of true believerism, suicide bombing becomes a reasonable, albeit extreme, human adaptation. It is not a crazed act of insane individuals, but a social ritual. While its proximal causes are shaped by the current parameters of a specific group, its ultimate causes emerge from the grouping impulse inherent in human nature. For a society (or a group) that perceives itself as engaged in a territorial or ideological struggle for its very survival against overpowering enemies, it is not irrational to embrace, promote and celebrate individual acts of great sacrifice for the cause; particularly if the enemy is deemed less than human, as all enemies are always deemed; particularly if those acts are intoxicatingly brutal; particularly if they are shown to be effective weapons in the fight. For individuals under the pressure of a society, and in the throes of true believerism, suicide bombing can become an attractive option.

All this is bad news, because it means that things are as they were and our enduring capacities for brutality, distortion, and conformity are bound to bear more bitter fruit in the future. This is also good news because, like heroin, true believerism, while potent and addictive, has an inherently limited appeal, and tends to deplete and kill its own adherents over time. It's good news also because societies change, often quickly and radically, and sometimes for the better. All around the world, people manage to live peacefully with, near, or among those who in the recent past have killed and brutalized them.

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