life as a weapon
WHY TERRORISTS BLOW THEMSELVES UP
Hassan is Emeritus Professor at Flinders University,
Adelaide, Australia, and Global Professor of Social Research
and Public Policy at New York University Abu Dhabi. His latest
book is Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings
years ago, 19 young Muslims commandeered passenger jets and
killed themselves, taking with them 2973 people to the inferno
of fire. Since the 9/11 attacks, suicide bombings have become
a staple of daily news, although the practice dates back at
least two decades. A commonly accepted narrative frames such
acts of self-destruction as the action of psychologically impaired,
morally deficient, uneducated, impoverished individuals and,
most of all, religious fanatics.
the analysis of information based on 1597 suicide attacks between
1981 and 2008, which killed more than 21,000 in 34 countries,
suggests a more complex set of reasons, an understanding of
which is essential if the world is to see an end of such slaughter.
book, Life as a Weapon, analyzes suicide bombings as
a method of choice among terrorist groups around the world and
altruism emerges as a major factor in the complex set of causes
behind the suicide attacks.
its most fundamental character, following the seminal studies
of economist Ernest Fehr and colleagues, altruism can be defined
as the costly actions that confer benefits on other individuals.
Altruism is a fundamental condition accounting for human cooperation
for organization of society and its cohesiveness.
the conceptual map of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, suicide
bombings would fall in the category of altruistic suicidal actions
– distinct from other types of suicidal actions caused
by personal catastrophes, hopelessness and psychopathologies
that lead people to believe life is not worth living. Altruistic
suicides, on the other hand, involve valuing one's life as less
worthy than the group's honor, religion or other collective
genesis of suicide bombings is rooted in intractable asymmetrical
conflicts pitching the state against non-state actors over political
entitlements, territorial occupation and dispossession. Invariably
such conflicts instigate state-sanctioned violence and repressive
policies against weaker non-state parties causing widespread
outrage and large-scale dislocation of people, many of whom
become refugees in makeshift camps, in or outside so called
Nordstrom captures the mood in Sri Lanka during the recently
ended civil war: "In the war zones, violence and war permeated
all aspect of daily life. It was not certain a person going
for work would return in the evening. A home could be suddenly
searched, someone brutally killed, a mother raped or father
taken away. A shell could land anywhere destroying everything
around . . . This kind of pervasive atmosphere of violence,
rather than breaking down the resistance and spirit of population,
in times creates resistance and defiance, particularly in the
youth." Other contributing factors include incarceration
and dehumanizing treatments of insurgents in state custody and
mutual dehumanization of the 'other.'
bombing, rarely the strategy of first choice, is selected by
terrorist organizations after collective assessments, based
on observations and experience, of strategies' relative effectiveness
to achieve political goals.
decision to participate is facilitated by suicide bombers' internalized
social identities, their exposure to asymmetric conflict and
its costs, their exposure to organizations that sponsor such
attacks as well as membership in a larger community where sacrifice
and martyrdom carry high symbolic significance.
Sri Lanka, the Black Tigers attached importance to how the community
would view their actions: They were glorified in their burial
rituals, and an eternal lamp adorned the tombstone of every
Black Tiger grave to commemorate the sacrifice.
sociological and economic perspectives, suicide bombings can
be linked to altruism as a form of intergenerational investment
or an extreme form of saving in which the agent gives up current
consumption for the sake of enhancing probability of descendants
enjoying benefit of some future public good.
of Hezbollah suicide bombers in Lebanon shows that incidents
of suicide bombing attacks increase with current income and
the degree of altruism towards the next generation. Hezbollah
suicide bombers come from above-average wealthy families and
have above-average levels of education. The willingness of more
educated people to engage in suicide missions suggests that
education affects one's view of the world, enhancing sensitivity
to the future.
is not antithetical to aggression. In war soldiers perform altruistic
actions by risking lives for comrades and country and also killing
the enemy. Actions of Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War
II are examples of military sacrifice.
can also be socially constructed in communities that have endured
massive social and economic dislocations as a result of long,
violent and painful conflict with a more powerful enemy. Under
such conditions people react to perceived inferiority and the
failure of other efforts by valuing and supporting ideals of
self-sacrifice such as suicide bombing. Religiously and nationalistically
coded attitudes towards acceptance of death stemming from long
periods of collective suffering, humiliation and powerlessness
enable political organizations to give people suicide bombing
as an outlet for feelings of desperation, deprivation, hostility
evidence, however, also shows that such personal and collective
sufferings motivating suicide bombers coexist with their inner
feelings of altruism and sense of fairness. An Iraqi suicide
bomber Marwan prayed that "no innocent people were killed
in his mission." Shafiqa, an incarcerated failed Palestinian
suicide bomber in Israel, did not detonate her device after
seeing "a woman with a little baby in her carriage. And
I thought, why do I have to do this to that woman and her child?
I won't be doing something good for Allah. I thought about the
people who loved me and about the innocent people in the street
. . . It was a very difficult moment for me."
filmmaker Pierre Rehov interviewed many Palestinians in Israeli
jails, arrested following failed suicide-bombing missions or
for aiding and abetting such missions, for his film "Suicide
Killers." Every one of them tried to convince him that
that the action was the right thing to do for moralistic reasons.
According to Rehove, "these aren't kids who want to do
evil. These are kids who want to do good . . ." The result
– young people who had previously conducted their lives
as good people believe that a suicide bombing represented doing
degradations of Israeli occupation had created collective hatred,
making them susceptible to indoctrination to become martyrs.
As Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo puts it,
"It is neither mindless nor senseless, only a very different
mind-set and with different sensibilities than we have been
used to witnessing among young adults in most countries."
bombings invariably provoke a brutal response from authorities.
By injecting fear and mayhem into ordinary rhythms of daily
life, such bombings undermine the state's authority in providing
security and maintaining social order. Under such conditions
the state can legitimately impose altruistic punishments to
deter future violation threatening security and social order.
These include punishments meted out to perpetrators and their
supporters. The state-sanctioned military actions against the
Palestinians, Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, Iraqi insurgents and
the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan are examples of these
altruistic punishments are only effective when they do not violate
the norms of fairness. Punishments and sanctions seen as unfair,
hostile, selfish and vindictive by targeted groups tend to have
detrimental effects. Instead of promoting compliance, they reinforce
recipients' resolve to non-compliance. Counter-insurgency operations
are aimed at increasing the cost of insurgency to the insurgents,
and invariably involve eliminating leaders and supporters who
plan suicide bombings, destroying insurgents' capabilities for
mounting future attacks, and restrictions on mobility and other
violations of civil liberties.
there is mounting evidence that such harsh measures reinforce
radical opposition and even intensify it. This is now happening
in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories and
has also been the case in Sri Lanka and Iraq and other conflict
Threats & Minarets
Hookers & Paradise Now
and Trembling in the Age of Terror
Unveiling the Terrorist Mind
& Trembling in Mumbai
with permission from YaleGlobal Online
www.yaleglobal.yale.edu (c) 2009 Yale Center for
the Study of Globalization.