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Vol. 10, No. 2, 2011
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suicide bombers



Dr. Quaytman is a licensed clinical psychologist who has practiced for over 35 years in the state of California. Her specialities include: neuropsychological effects of trauma, suicide, substance abuse/addiction and family systems dysfunction. She also teaches at California State University, Chico.

In an age of sound bites, hyperbole, and the dreaded ‘dumbing down’ of material in a variety of disciplines, I found myself flummoxed by yet another example of such carelessness. Specifically, I'm referring to Professor Hassan's assertion (Arts & Opinion, Vol. 9, No. 6) that altruism is the primary motive behind the deadly behaviour of modern suicide bombers. Hassan briefly alludes to alternative explanations for these bombers' decisions, but summarily dismisses them with brief snippets from several sources. He then immediately inserts Durkheim's concept of “altruistic suicide” into the vacuum . . . a clever technique which serves to spotlight altruism as the unmistakable star of the show. This, of course, relegates each of the other possible players to mere walk-on roles in this global tragedy that would make even Euripides blanch. Although Hassan does give lip service to the fact that suicide bombing is the result of complex factors, it is just that – lip service. And we quickly realize that he wants nothing to do with untangling the knotty issues of this truly multifaceted behavioural pattern. Hassan's approach also effectively distracts his readers away from the weaknesses in his argument, as they ponder their questions about the actual scope of coverage in his book, Life As A Weapon. Thus, the reader is disarmed, rendered helpless against his assertions unless they go out and buy the book. Is this simply a tactic to jam our intellectual radar, an excellent marketing strategy, or evidence of unconscious bias? One of the nagging irritants throughout the piece was the rather transparent cloaking of the bombers' violent behaviour under the soft, wooly costume of Hassan's innocent character, a 'lamb' named altruism. Unfortunately, Professor Hassan has misinterpreted Durkheim's definition of altruistic suicide . . . but more on this later. In essence, Hassan's almost complete avoidance of the crucial interaction between mental illness, criminality, and environmental deficits prompts us, by default, to accept the implications of his premise: there really is nothing amiss in either the values or cognitive processes of these bombers; they are basically of sound mind and are acting from tenets that are both morally justified and reasonable. As a consequence, Professor Hassan's approach, rather than being received as the vox pacem he may have intended, could well act as yet another incendiary device in the onslaught of verbal bombshells flung carelessly about by all sides in this grisly conflict. Academics wield a good deal of power on the page, and are expected to use great care in ensuring their presentation is accurate. Such scrupulous attention has never been more necessary than in discussions of this specific and emotionally charged topic, especially in view of its potential for negative backlash.

Perhaps the murkiest, most misleading and inaccurate portion of Professor Hassan's commentary was his interpretation of Emile Durkheim's treatise on social upheaval, its resulting “anomie,” and his various suicide typologies. Hassan hinges much of his argument on what he believes that 19th century sociologist intended in his discussion of those topics. However, Professor Hassan's interpretation does not hold up under a careful reading of Durkheim's work. First of all, Hassan implies that, because Durkheim did not focus on the psychological damage emerging from societal disturbance, that such damage did not occur in those social conditions. Further, Hassan's careless treatment of Durkheim's material creates confusion regarding Durkheim's use of the term, “normal,” which was meant to indicate a statistical probability, not the layperson's understanding of behaviour appropriate to circumstance. Coser (1977), in his coverage of Durkheim's work, clearly tells us that Durkheim's focus was on the sociological roots of suicide, not on the internal psychological distress which such conditions could produce. Secondly, Hassan has obviously misread the conditions Durkheim required for a suicide to be considered “altruistic,” and which are quite different from those that produce “anomic” suicides. If Hassan wishes to opt for “altruistic suicide” as the perfect description of these bombers' behaviour, then he is in conflict with Durkheim's description of the social conditions required for that type of suicide. Durkheim was quite clear that “altruistic suicide” only arises in societies with “overly strong regulation of individuals” (Coser), exact behavioural expectations in regard to social norms, and an ‘extremely stable social order.’ That type of environment is obviously not descriptive of these suicide bombers' environment. Yet Professor Hassan, after asserting that the bombers meet Durkheim's criteria for “altruistic suicide,” immediately follows with a description of the “large scale dislocation of people,” refugee camps and war zones associated with these bombers' physical environments. Not surprisingly, the term Durkheim used to describe suicides emerging in volatile societies was ‘anomic suicide,’ not the ‘altruistic’ variety. It should also be noted that Coser's description and examples of altruistic suicide never include the suicide-homicide combination present in modern suicide bombings.

Another bone of contention in Professor Hassan's commentary is the controversial nature of altruism as a possible explanation for the bombers' behavior. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, altruism is “. . . behaviour by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” On the face of it, said definition could be interpreted as supportive of Professor Hassan's thesis. But what about those deaths among the bombers' own people – those who share the same ethnicity or nationality, or the neutral innocents which the bombers' religious beliefs tell them not to harm? It's obvious from the bombers' own words, as set out in Hassan's article, that they are confused and conflicted by the potential collateral damage from those premeditated bombings; that such an outcome does not jive with their internal moral compass. Professor Hassan infers that the bombers believed such actions, although damaging to innocent others in the present, would eventually produce some future, and greater benefit to the whole. In contrast with Webster's brief definition, the Encyclopedia Britannica helps the reader with a more in-depth look at the conflict surrounding this topic, and it offers the following statements regarding altruism: “As a theory of conduct, its adequacy depends on an interpretation of 'the good'.” (emphasis added). The encyclopedia goes on to discuss the inherent difficulty in applying the adjective, altruistic, to any given act, particularly “when the good envisioned by the doer does not coincide with the vision of the beneficiary.” Of course, Britannica's language points to a methodological problem assailing all researchers – the importance of operational definitions, particularly when discussing the rather swampy zone of human emotional experience or belief systems.

As it stands, the argument Professor Hassan presents in his Arts and Opinion commentary comes off as an example of both solipsism and sophistry. Bruce Brooks (University of Massachusetts) describes a solipsism as a “more or less persuasive account” which attempts to convince the reader that “scientific methods are irrelevant to history.” Brooks goes on to say that those who employ a solipsistic approach “see everything” through the lens of their own “desire,” an indication the speaker may be blinded by some form of bias or limited information. Certainly Hassan's artful dodging of competing psychological constructs, not to mention his distortion of Durkheim's work to advance his thesis, seems consistent with Brooks' definition. As to the allegation of sophistry, Professor Hassan employed a number of techniques in his attempt to convince us to abandon our concerns about the mental health or criminal nature of these bombers, and to focus, instead, on his selection of altruism as the main motive behind these types of suicides. Hassan's slick use of a Dr. Zimbardo's description of the bombers as neither “mindless nor senseless” is only one example of this type of linguistic chicanery, and leads the reader to believe that an expert in mental health -- a psychologist -- is confirming Hassan's premise that the bombers are not mentally disordered. However, Zimbardo's statement merely indicates that the bombers are not psychotic; that is, they are not suffering from florid hallucinations or delusions. It does not imply that the bombers are mentally sound; in fact, most horrific crimes are committed by mentally disordered individuals who lack psychotic features.

Mental disorders are not simply conjectures born of various untested theories. The methodology of modern neuroscience actually demonstrates changes in neurotransmitter functioning, as well as brain structure, as a consequence of numerous types of injuries, both physical and emotional. This is particularly true when discussing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD, although commonly viewed as an individual diagnosis resulting from trauma, has also been found to occur in large percentages of entire countries, tribal groups or geographical regions. A case in point is the Southeast Asian population following the Vietnam War. Research indicates that at least 50% of various ethnic groups immigrating from that region after the cessation of conflict met the full criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD using the DSM-IV criteria. It is well accepted in the psychological community that exposure to horrifying events which kill, torture and/or threaten an individual (or someone close to them) is the primary criterion for developing the classic symptoms of PTSD. Further, when one is helpless in the face of such terror, the second criterion for symptom development is in place. It is now common knowledge that the symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, night terrors, hyperarousal (pacing, agitation, heightened startle responses), as well as avoidance of situations that are reminiscent of the original trauma. What is less well known is the level of depression, with its obsessive rumination about retribution/restitution, as well as anhedonia (loss of pleasure in normal activity) that can ensue as a consequence of chronic, unresolved trauma and injustice. These conditions are clearly present in individuals who live among millions who are equally helpless in the face of constant threat, privation, oppression by their own leaders, tribal/inter-faith conflict, capricious politics, not to mention unjustified invasions by other nations. This type of on-going exposure to high levels of stress raises the level of neurohormones associated with fear; and this, in turn, not only alters brain chemistry but actually destroys neuronal structures responsible for emotional modulation, behavioural control and perceptual accuracy. The heightened risk for suicide and homicide for such chronically and severely stressed individuals is high indeed, as is the likelihood for poor judgment and impaired reality testing. Classic examples of this are the now infamous cases of “suicide by cop,” or “going postal;” and both of these methods of self-destruction have frequently included, as part of the plan, the taking or endangering of the lives of others. Thus, it is not surprising that Professor Hassan briefly alluded to the ease with which some individuals could be converted to jihadism, although again, Hassan implies there is no mental disorder present which would explain the bombers' choice to do so.

In support of his claim that altruism is the root of these bombers' actions, Professor Hassan recounts their statements regarding the moral or religious concerns they experienced when contemplating the planned attacks. Rather than evidence of altruism, however, the bombers' concerns for potential innocent victims or the violation of their own religious principles actually illustrates the presence of a powerful internal conflict often referred to as cognitive dissonance. Although they would be conscious of these ethical questions, the bombers' desire for an end to their internal conflict will tip the scales of that debate in favor of aggression, violence and escapist strategies as they seek to end that protracted internal turmoil. Essentially, the bombers are likely to experience self-hatred for being helpless in the face of their oppression, as well as rage at their perpetrator for the callous indifference they exhibit. Another crucial aspect of the bombers' internal dialogue is the anger s/he feels toward other helpless victims of that same oppression; this is the most likely explanation for the bombers' willingness to take other innocents out during these attacks. The loss of cognitive/perceptual accuracy associated with neurological damage in victims of chronic, severe stress, of course, results in dreams of retribution from obviously flawed plans. For example, how will the bombers’ deeds actually end the oppression of others in their homeland . . . isn't it more likely that such violence will result in retaliation? By Professor Hassan's account, these suicide bombers are mostly well educated, from upper classes and demonstrate no obvious cognitive deficits. They should be able to rationally view the lengthy history of political and religious struggle inside and outside their own country, as well as evaluate the potential outcome of their actions. That is, of course, if they are not mentally disordered, as Professor Hassan intimates. It was also interesting to note that Professor Hassan, in his discussion of the bombers' ethical concerns, combined two apparently disparate types of bombers into one category – those who completed their horrifying plan, despite unsettling ethical concerns, and those prospective bombers (the case of Shafiqa) who aborted their plan when they accurately perceived the presence of innocent victims in their path. Do individuals who contemplate such violence, but are able to stop themselves prior to the act, demonstrate the same perceptual clarity as those bombers who can't or won't stop, when they perceive the paradoxical nature of their behaviour? Clearly, Shafiqa was able to discern that killing an innocent woman and child would act against her true objective -- to interfere with oppression of the innocent and equalize the power dynamics in her environment. This difference in reality testing is consistent with the research on mental disorders including PTSD; and that research indicates some individuals are genetically predisposed to develop greater severity of symptoms, while others are not.

Another aspect of psychological functioning Professor Hassan did not consider was the common defense mechanism of “projection,” and how it is likely at work in the bombers' ill-considered plans. This statistically normal, but frequently problematic mental trickery promotes the belief that others should feel as we do, share the same values and behave in a similar manner. This specific defense mechanism is also increasingly employed in traumatized individuals, if and when their reality testing begins to deteriorate. To get a look at the level of projection among the bombers, we could assess the amount of sympathy for the bombers' actions shared by fellow countrymen or those of the Islamic faith. Recent surveys (Pew Research Center; 2002; 2004) estimate that 38% of all Muslims supported the suicide bombers' goals at the time of those studies. Although a statistical minority, this represents 270 million people around the world. In contrast, other Islamic sources steadfastly claim that suicidal or homicidal behaviour is not consistent with Islamic law; and the Islamic group, Center for Peace and Spirituality, asserts that 'martyrdom' and its reward cannot be achieved by deliberately courting death. In reporting these data, Alo Konsen refers to the contaminating variables (e.g. social desirability; volunteer bias) which can distort reporting figures on such sensitive topics. However, Konsen also points to the extreme variability in Muslim support, with the lowest percentage of support found in Uzbekistan (7%) and the highest percentage from those polled in Jordan (86%). But it is unclear if this variability in support correlates with the relative level of chaos or social disruption present in diverse Islamic states. It is fairly clear, however, that, despite feelings of sympathy, the vast majority of Muslims do not engage in this type violence. And similarly desperate acts, incited by other types of injustice, are also statistically rare in other parts of the world.

Professor Hassan invites his audience to a drama in which suicide bombers take the stage as a unique group . . . heroic, sympathetic actors who are traumatized, but not impaired in any way. These characters cannot be neurologically damaged, perceptually flawed, or truly vicious because of the righteous nature of their cause; therefore, there must be some other reason. How about altruism? Hassan's argument is obviously specious, despite his rather adroit ability to dodge the issues which would undermine his assertions. Worse, his readers have seen this plot before. From Cambodia to Rwanda, others (equally adrift in their own deserts of despair) have similarly seized upon carnage as an attempted solution, and with the same result. However compelling this plot line may be, it cannot dismiss the fact that this statistically rare response is not usually chosen by the vast majority of others who have also been traumatized. And this fact increases the probability that these bombers are among those most damaged and least resilient in the face of chaos and danger. Perhaps Professor Hassan believes the bombers would be 'punished for being punished' if he allowed them to be labeled as mentally disordered . . . that it would be yet another injustice heaped upon individuals already crushed by oppression. It is also possible that Hassan fears others will dismiss the truth of the bombers' grievances, if they are labeled as mentally impaired. Hassan seems to have seized on Durkheim's construct of altruistic suicide in a desperate attempt to eliminate that possibility. The fact that the bombers may be suffering from a mental disorder in no way suggests that the trauma, injustice and oppression at the root of that damage was not real. Nor does it imply that those responsible for that damage, both inside and outside the bombers' own countries, are not culpable, in various ways, for those injuries. Of course, this raises the question: Is Hassan the real altruist here; is he projecting his hopes onto these sad, but disturbed individuals? Unfortunately, that would not excuse his own abuse of power. His careless and inaccurate narrative casts Hassan into a growing pool of 'spin doctors' who distort the data from this horrifying and exhausting spectacle for their own ends. Unfettered use of power often results in its victims employing the same tactic; and, paradoxically, this renders both sides powerless to achieve their goals. This axiom holds true whether that abuse of power is exercised in the political arena, on the battleground, or in a minefield of words.



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By J. A. Quaytman:
Michael Jackson: Another Seduction
A Pale Horse

Related articles:
Upsets, Threats & Minarets
Hijackers, Hookers & Paradise Now
Fear and Trembling in the Age of Terror
Unveiling the Terrorist Mind

Burking the Burqa

Fear & Trembling in Mumbai
Misplaced Tolerance

Hard Ball at the Wailing Wall

Glad you found my blog useful for estimating the number of suicide bombers/sympathizers in the muslim world. Might you be willing to throw a link my way?-- Alo Konsen




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