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Why Do Terrorists Blow Themselves Up? -The Jakarta Globe

[MISC, Saturday, 18 September 2010 08:40 No Comment]

Nine years ago, 19 young Muslims hijacked passenger jets and killed themselves, taking 2,973 people with them. Since the 9/11 attacks, suicide bombings have become a staple of daily news, although the practice dates back at least two decades. Such acts are usually framed as the action of psychologically impaired, morally deficient, uneducated, impoverished individuals and, most of all, religious fanatics.

But an analysis of 1,597 suicide attacks between 1981 and 2008, which killed more than 21,000 people 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.

Surprisingly, altruism emerges as a major factor in the complex set of causes behind the suicide attacks.

In its most fundamental character, 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.

In 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 interests.

The 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 war zones.

Suicide 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.

The 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 and membership in a larger community where sacrifice and martyrdom carry high symbolic significance.

From 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.

Analysis of Hezbollah suicide bombers in Lebanon shows that incidents of such attacks increase with rising income and the degree of altruism toward 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.

Altruism is not antithetical to aggression. In war, soldiers perform altruistic actions by risking lives for comrades and country and also killing the enemy.

Altruism 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 toward 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, hostility and injustice.

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 violations that threaten security and social order.

But 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.

Counterinsurgency 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.

But there is mounting evidence that such harsh measures reinforce radical opposition and even intensify it.

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