Sunday, February 3, 2008

What Can We Understand about Suicide Murderers?

A woman in Sri Lanka has killed herself while murdering 10 innocents at a train station in Colombo. I mention this because it is not true that suicide murderers are all Muslim. There are all sorts of people who engage in the practice: Sri Lankens on the Tamili side of that conflict, Muslims, Muslim Arabs, occasionally non-Muslim Arabs, other sorts of Muslims, other sorts of Arabs. Lots of types of people can be incited to be so angry - or at any rate, so evil - that they'll purposefully set out to kill themselves so long as they can take innocent strangers with them.

Of course, Not all Sri Lankens, and not all Muslims or Arabs, either, not by a very far call.

Still, having said that, whenever you hear about a suicide murder, you can be forgiven for assuming it's a Muslim or an Arab. What you can't assume, however, is that it's an angry young man, frustrated by the Israelis, which is what"everyone" knew back when the Shiites in Lebanon first started using the method in the 1980s, and the Palestinians a few years later. Now, another 15 years on, it has become the weapon of choice for a large range of angry Muslims, in many parts of the world, and a very large majority of the victims are other Muslims or Arabs or both, and it takes quite a stretch of the imagination to continue imagining that murdering Arab civilians in Iraq, or Yazdis, has much to do with Israel or even the United States.

Since I'm a historian, I find myself pondering if perhaps this stage of the story might somehow have anything to tell us about the earlier parts. If there are Arabs who are perfectly comfortable with sending their own people to be killed while committing mass murder of other sorts of their people, isn't there at least the possibility that what we have here is such a serious pathology that the earlier forms of it my have stemmed from some of the same roots? And shouldn't the roots we're seeking also be connected to the stems on which are growing young British-born citizens of some Muslim variations who are perfectly willing to kill whoever is on the tube next to them, Anglicans, Catholic, Muslims and Jews?

I admit that I lack the cultural tools to be able to answer these questions - such as a good knowledge of Arabic, for a starter. My fellow historian Juan Cole, however, does have the languages, and a lot of good it does him.

You might want to read this report on yesterday's mass murder in Baghdad, committed by two women, at least one of whom was a recognized local figure, a beggar. In other words, she wasn't even murdering strangers, she was murdering the people in her world, in the narrow meaning of the term. One of the explanations, suggested by "US and Iraqi officials", but confirmed, according to the report, by a local man named Ali Nassir, who knew one of them, is that the women had Down Syndrome, and probably didn't even know what she was doing, nor that she was about to die. Cole's response to this? "The story that the women had Downs syndrome seems unlikely to be true; you wouldn't trust a sensitive terror plot to someone without their full faculties."

Does he have a shred of evidence for any of this? No. Is there evidence contradicting his thesis? Yes, see above. Is the sending of a suicide murderer (or in this case, perhaps the sending of a victim) a sensitive terror plot? Not in any way I can think of - all it is is mass murder, nothing particularly intricate to that. Something we've become so used to that we no longer even see how radically unnatural it is, besides being despicable.


Lydia McGrew said...

I have been told that the Tamil Tigers were the first suicide bombers in the 20th century. I haven't checked this out myself. If true, it could explain why that is showing up in Sri Lanka.

That being said, it looks to me like by sheer numbers nowadays, the majority of recorded suicide bombings in the past, say, ten years have been by Muslims rather than Tamils or anyone else. That could be verified, of course.

joe5348 said...

The first suicide bombers of the last century would have to be the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. What suicide bombers have in common is that they are young and impressionable. There is a DSM classification for "fanatacism." In the 1960s a longshoreman named Eric Hoffer wrote a book called "The True Believer." That book is a good first step in understanding the suicide bomber. It is interesting that the leaders who call for suicide bombers never manage to do it themselves.


Yaacov said...

Most people are, or once were, young and impressionable. Yet entire and vast groups of people - billions of them, actually - manage to get past the stage without there ever being the slightest danger of becoming suicide murderers - and not because they lived in perfect historical conditions. On the contrary. Many, perhaps the majority, live in unpleasant conditions. Without having researched the matter, I'd even hazard a guess that a significant number of them, perhaps a majority, were even true believers in this or that.

On the other hand, there were a number of Palestinian suicide murderers who were in their late 40s, so far as I remember, back in the heyday of the Palestinian killing spree, when the murderers were broadly celebrated for their act.

john capistrano said...

Let me be clear, I am certainly not excusing the suicide bombers behavior. I am just trying to understand it. I simply come to the conclusion that one who does that is simply nuts. Crazy. Insane. Wacko. There must be other words, but I think the idea is clear. The question is whether a suicide bomber is evil or non compos mentos. I fall on the side of insanity. How and why he or she got there is an issue for psychological research.


Yaacov said...

So we disagree. While committing suicide to murder others is clearly not rational, the phenomenon seems too common within some Islamic circles for it to be simply insanity.