The loneliness of the suicide bomber

The Boston Globe has an excellent article on whether suicide bombers are largely motivated by religious fanaticism or whether some might have symptoms of low mood and hopelessness that encourage them to end their lives.

The traditional thinking is that suicide bombing is enabled by concepts of martyrdom and retaliation and has little to do with a wish to escape a painful existence – as happens in ‘psychiatric’ suicides linked to sadness and mental illness.

But more recently, some researchers have begun to question whether some bombers might have been suicidal before being recruited, perhaps making them vulnerable to extremists seeming to offer an ‘honourable’ way out.

The issue is by no means settled but the Globe article does a great job of capturing the state of the research, although somewhat ironically, the debate seems to have become quite polarised.

But despite the accounts from their own published papers, scholar after scholar had dismissed the idea of suicidality among bombers. [Criminologist] Lankford remains incredulous. “This close-mindedness has become a major barrier to scholarly progress,” Lankford said.

 

Link to Boston Globe on the motivations of suicide bombers.

6 Comments

  1. Posted December 10, 2010 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    If Lankford is right, it makes sense that researchers would dismiss the possibility. We usually feel sympathy toward suicidal people. If we think that a suicide bomber might actually be suicidal, it might lead us to feel sympathy for him, something most criminologists would rather avoid. Thus the possibility is dismissed out of hand.

    I’m just speculating, but I know blind spots are often products of avoiding possibilities that might disrupt our worldview.

  2. Erik
    Posted December 10, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Nice headline meta reference

    That headline sums up the point which is bombers are like the protagonist in “The loneliness of the long distance runner”. Story of nihilistic youth (bomber) who would rather die than live in the establishment’s (The West)world.

    Well done

  3. Posted December 10, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Scott Atran begs to differ: http://www.scienceandreligiontoday.com/2010/12/07/is-it-possible-that-suicide-bombers-are-motivated-more-by-depression-than-revenge-or-religious-fanaticism/

    Quote: “The thesis … is so massively wrong as to make me wonder why this nutty thesis is still around.”

  4. Steve Merrick
    Posted December 10, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    “According to Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism and expert on suicide bombers, 95% of suicide attacks in recent times have the same specific strategic goal: to cause an occupying state to withdraw forces from a disputed territory.” — Wikipedia

    This tends to support patriotism as the cause of suicide bombing, not fanaticism and martyrdom.

  5. alix
    Posted December 10, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    While I don’t dismiss this concept out of hand, and feel it might be worthy of further research; I’m finding it difficult to imagine how to reliably measure the *pre-recruitment* state of mind of a suicide bomber *after* his/her successful suicide.

    Wouldn’t this kind of ex-post-facto diagnosis depend on the quite possibly revisionist memories of the bomber’s surviving friends and relations?

  6. Gin
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Suicide bombers are quite often recruited from poor neighborhoods. Their families are given money and are honoured after a successful suicide bombing. I think it might be helpful to consider cultural differences when analysing issues like this – particularly understanding the social factors that operate in collectivist cultures (as opposed to trying to understand this from an individualist p.o.v.). Honour and poverty are motivation enough I’d think.


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