Unfortunately our world is still populated by a few people who will willingly shed the blood of others while destroying themselves. Understanding the personalities and motivations of these people may one day help eliminate this scourge. In the meantime, psychologists ponder whether they are psychologically normal, but politically crazed fanatics or deeply troubled?
Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor, asserts that suicide terrorists are merely unhappy, damaged individuals who want to die. In his book, The Myth of Martyrdom, Lankford rejects the popular view of suicide terrorists as calculating, radicalized individuals who will do anything for a cause.
From the New Scientist:
In the aftermath of 9/11, terrorism experts in the US made a bold and counter-intuitive claim: the suicide terrorists were psychologically normal. When it came to their state of mind, they were not so different from US Special Forces agents. Just because they deliberately crashed planes into buildings, that didn’t make them suicidal – it simply meant they were willing to die for a cause they believed in.
This argument was stated over and over and became the orthodoxy. “We’d like to believe these are crazed fanatics,” said CIA terror expert Jerrold Post in 2006. “Not true… as individuals, this is normal behaviour.”
I disagree. Far from being psychologically normal, suicide terrorists are suicidal. They kill themselves to escape crises or unbearable pain. Until we recognise this, attempts to stop the attacks are doomed to fail.
When I began studying suicide terrorists, I had no agenda, just curiosity. My hunch was that the official version was true, but I kept an open mind.
Then I began watching martyrdom videos and reading case studies, letters and diary entries. What I discovered was a litany of fear, failure, guilt, shame and rage. In my book The Myth of Martyrdom, I present evidence that far from being normal, these self-destructive killers have often suffered from serious mental trauma and always demonstrate at least a few behaviours on the continuum of suicidality, such as suicide ideation, a suicide plan or previous suicide attempts.
Why did so many scholars come to the wrong conclusions? One key reason is that they believe what the bombers, their relatives and friends, and their terrorist recruiters say, especially when their accounts are consistent.
In 2007, for example, Ellen Townsend of the University of Nottingham, UK, published an influential article called Suicide Terrorists: Are they suicidal? Her answer was a resounding no (Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, vol 37, p 35).
How did she come to this conclusion? By reviewing five empirical reports: three that depended largely upon interviews with deceased suicide terrorists’ friends and family, and two based on interviews of non-suicide terrorists. She took what they said at face value.
I think this was a serious mistake. All of these people have strong incentives to lie.
Take the failed Palestinian suicide bomber Wafa al-Biss, who attempted to blow herself up at an Israeli checkpoint in 2005. Her own account and those of her parents and recruiters tell the same story: that she acted for political and religious reasons.
These accounts are highly suspect. Terrorist leaders have strategic reasons for insisting that attackers are not suicidal, but instead are carrying out glorious martyrdom operations. Traumatised parents want to believe that their children were motivated by heroic impulses. And suicidal people commonly deny that they are suicidal and are often able to hide their true feelings from the world.
This is especially true of fundamentalist Muslims. Suicide is explicitly condemned in Islam and guarantees an eternity in hell. Martyrs, on the other hand, can go to heaven.
Most telling of all, it later emerged that al-Biss had suffered from mental health problems most of her life and had made two previous suicide attempts.
Her case is far from unique. Consider Qari Sami, who blew himself up in a café in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2005. He walked in – and kept on walking, past crowded tables and into the bathroom at the back where he closed the door and detonated his belt. He killed himself and two others, but could easily have killed more. It later emerged that he was on antidepressants.
Read the entire article here.