The terms “crazy” and “inhuman” fall strangely short when describing a radical suicide bomber.
One of the most horrifyingly negative occurrences to emerge from the various ongoing conflicts in and around the Middle East is the suicide bomber. What is the explanation for suicide bombing? The initial impulse is to credit suicide bombing to the rank insanity of the bombers themselves, or maybe to something fundamental in the “mentality” of the bombers’ ethnic or religious groups. That’s something that those of us on the outside always see as uniquely backwards and brutal.
Ascribing a behavior to individual “craziness” or to a group’s “fanaticism” is a really seductive impulse. It offers an easily understandable solution that absolves “us” and implicates “them.” It releases us from the burden of seeking a better understanding of complex processes that are involved in reaching the point of pushing a button that ends the lives of scores of people as well as one’s own. The explanation, i.e., craziness, falls short of definitive. Here are some reasons why:
First: Using craziness to explain suicide bombers is the classic circular argument:
Why did he blow himself up? Because he was crazy. How do you know he was crazy? Because he blew himself up.
To be useful as an explanation, the descriptor of craziness must have been verified beforehand, in unrelated circumstances. In most cases, evidence of what we would consider individual insanity or mental illness is not a feature of modern day future suicide bombers’ profiles. For the most part, they aren’t crazy by modern medical standards.
Second: Attributing suicide bombing to internal properties of the bombers illustrates what the psychologists and psychiatrists call, “the actor-observer effect.” The actor-observer effect is a very common, and a usually incorrect inclination to attribute the awful behavior of others to their personalities, while excusing our own bad behavior due to the existing circumstance.
You’re late to the meeting because you’re lazy. I’m late because of heavy traffic.
Third: Incidents of brutality and backwardness have periodically been visited upon every religion and ethnicity throughout history. The “mentality” explanation is also the seed of all racism:
Jews, for example, were said over millennia to have a seedy, greedy mentality. Arabs are said to be inveterate liars and deal breakers. While Americans are said to be mercantile to the expense of all values.
Do you see how mentality is also the seed of despair, since mentality is innate and unchangeable? Soon, it starts to lock you in.
To approach a fuller understanding of suicide bombers, it helps to apply a more nuanced analysis. First, we have to acknowledge the human love for brutality. As the British philosopher Jonathan Glover 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.”
Brutality is not a 20th century concept
Brutality is not unique to Muslims, or to the insane. There is the power of society. Society gives all of us language, a worldview, an identity, a set of rules and rituals to live by. Anyone’s 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, groomed, and rewarded in your society’s image. Once society settles on a set of values—positive or negative—and the accepted ways of obtaining these values, individuals within the society, any society, are duty-bound to follow the path.
Suicide bombing in this circumstance is just the latest vulgarly twisted incarnation in a long tradition of socially sanctioned brutal rituals enacted in different societies across history, from religious inquisitions, and witch hunting of the past, to duels that stole many an honorable man, to systematic war-rape seen in sub-Saharan Africa today.
Then, there is an additional factor is what I will call “true believerism.” It is the magic bean in which is found the conviction that you and your group are in possession of “The Truth.” We tend to judge true believerism in terms of content. By that I mean we see it as dangerous or odd in others but not in ourselves. Somehow, our Christian history, e.g., the resurrection of the dead, the parting of the Red Sea, the animals on the Noah’s Ark, are glorious, deep, and perfectly laudable but their religious stories, the virgins…70 of them, are ugly and strange, laughable, and so very 13th century.
True believerism, however, develops its ugly destructive force not from just content, but from process. Once the true believing process is in place, you can add any content you choose with equally destructive results. It is like an office shredder; 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 ISIS side and those on the Western side differ greatly on content, each promoting their own God, goals, and societal values, but in terms of process they are similar, requiring the destruction of the brutal and backward “other” and willing to give their lives for it in order to achieve it.
Seen in the context of our fascination with, and for, violence, the power of group society, and the vile twisting force of true believerism, suicide bombing becomes locally seen as a reasonable, albeit extreme, human adaptation. It is not a crazed act of insane individuals, but a new “social ritual.” That is the thing about living in the 13th century; you don’t hear the views of the opposition.
The Ongoing Process of Brutality
While its general causes are formed by the current issues of a specific group, the ultimate causes emerge from the group impulse inherent in all human nature. For a society (or a group) that perceives itself as engaged in a territorial, ideological, or religious struggle for its survival against overpowering enemies, it is not seen as irrational to embrace, promote, and celebrate individual acts of great sacrifice for the cause. Those very sacrifices, particularly if the enemy is deemed less than human—such as non-believers who are less than human—as all enemies are always deemed, particularly if the acts are intoxicatingly brutal (e.g., bombs, knives, or mass killings) and shown to be effective weapons in the fight are welcomed, at times even lauded in the group (think Hamas paying a stipend to the families of suicide bombers). For individuals under the intense pressure of society and in the throes of true believerism, suicide bombing becomes an attractive option and to them, a reasonable means to an end that they know they will never live to see in the first place.
All this is really bad news, because it means that things are as they were centuries ago, and our enduring capacities for brutality, distortion, and conformity are bound to bear uglier, bitter fruit in the near- and mid-term future. And they aren’t crazy.
Yet there is also good news too because like heroin, true believerism—while inspiringly potent and deeply addictive—has an inherently limited appeal to those with an improving life, and tends over time to deplete itself, killing more and more of its own zealous devotees. It’s good news also because societies improve, often quickly and radically, and usually for the better. That very improvement depletes the ranks of potential suicide bombers over time.
All around the world, people are managing to live peacefully with, near, or among those who in the recent past have killed and brutalized them. We have done it in the past, and we can indeed reach that point again.