Adam Lankford Is a criminal Justice professor at the University of Alabama. Dr. Lankford has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Wired, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and numerous peer-reviewed journals. His research has been featured by CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, BBC World Radio, CBS Radio, The Boston Globe, USA Today, and many other national and international outlets.
His new well received book, The Myth of Martyrdom, offers unprecedented evidence that many suicide terrorists are suicidal, in the clinical sense, and are not simply driven by ideology or commitment to the cause. This directly contradicts what most experts have insisted about suicide terrorists for decades.
You claim in your book that your thesis fits the gut instincts of average people about suicide terrorists but that the view of the majority of terrorism/security experts has diverged from this very basic and instinctive idea. What’s the main reason for this divergence and what can we learn from it?
When it comes to suicide terrorists, most people figured that anyone who would strap bombs around his waist and press the detonator—or intentionally crash an airplane into a building—must have something deeply wrong with him. But because of sophisticated social psychological research, such as Milgram’s electric shock experiments on obedience to authority, Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment, and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment, terrorism experts concluded that suicide attackers must be ordinary people who are just trying to fight for “the greater good.”
It is definitely true that ordinary people can be influenced to do terrible things, and that suicide terrorists are affected by group dynamics and social context.
But there had to be an importance difference between the more 90 million people around the world who believe that suicide bombings are “sometimes” or “often” justified, and the 300 or so who blow themselves up each year. My research identifies this difference.
Are the standards of 'normalcy' and 'mental well being'- which you claim suicide terrorists fail to meet- not culture-specific (western) ones? When you criticize experts for not diagnosing a failed suicide terrorist as generally suicidal 'despite the fact that he had very low self-esteem and had struggled for years with social marginalization, parental disapproval, and difficulties in school', are the symptoms you describe not shared by a vast number of young people in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Gaza or other severely oppressive dictatorships?
Mental health problems exist in all cultures, just like physical health problems do. In both cases, whether or not they are accurately diagnosed and treated is certainly influenced by one’s culture. But I don’t think it is normal in any context—not in Afghanistan, not in Gaza—for someone to be unable to make close friends and to have bad relationships with their parents and to have significant problems at school. Of course, many people do encounter these types of adversity. The key is whether or not they can find a healthy way to cope. It would be hard to argue that volunteering for a suicide bombing would be one of those healthy ways.
Some people might say that it is always possible to find some kind of past adversity or problem to give an easy explanation of why someone commits murder, suicide or acts of terrorism. How do you know you have actually found the ‘primary reason’ for the act in question?
In many cases, there seems to be a direct cause-and-effect between something that went wrong in the person’s life and his or her decision to carry out a suicide attack. For instance, in the book, I present two separate examples of girls who had never participated in any terrorist attacks before and then suddenly volunteered to blow themselves up. They did not magically become completely ideologically committed to the terrorist cause overnight—something must have changed in their lives. In both cases, it turns out they unintentionally got pregnant, despite being unmarried, which is a major cause of shame in their cultural context. Each girl carried out a suicide attack before her pregnancy could become public knowledge. Of course, not everyone who gets pregnant outside of marriage becomes suicidal. These girls may have had other psychological problems as well, but it seems that their unwanted pregnancies were the final crises that prompted their drastic actions.
Were there no cases you encountered which did not fit the general pattern you describe (of personal pain, shame, depression, need to escape etc' conducing the suicide terrorist’s act)? Are there no cases of 'pure suicide terrorists'? Would your theory allow such a thing?
In the vast majority of cases, committing a suicide attack is irrational for a mentally healthy person, because even if the person is willing to do anything to help their cause, they could be more valuable by continuing to live and fight. For instance, if they wanted to kill as many of the enemy as possible, in most cases, they could kill more enemies by learning to build improvised explosive devices and then planting bombs for the next 20 or 30 years, instead of blowing themselves up tomorrow. Of course, it might be rational for someone to carry out a large scale suicide attack, such as 9/11, because of the tremendous impact it would have. But those types of attacks are exceedingly rare, and I expose the suicidal tendencies of many 9/11 hijackers in the book.
Are there cases of purely ideologically motivated terrorists? One possible example is Salah Ghandour, who at age 26 committed a suicide attack in Lebanon. Ghandour was a member of Hezbollah, and had pleaded with his commanders for three years to carry out a suicide attack. Previous scholars have interpreted his repeated pleas as a sign of his powerful ideological commitment. But interestingly enough, this was during a period when Hezbollah had stopped deploying suicide bombers, and Ghandour’s commanders actually tried to convince him not to blow himself up, arguing that he should not leave his wife and three babies behind. In my opinion, the fact that Ghandour wanted to die anyway—despite his commanders’ tactical and personal advice—suggests that he cared more about escaping his life than he did about the cause, and that he wanted to disguise his suicidal intentions as something heroic.
Your theory reduces what look like acts of extreme religious zeal into personal psychology (people running away from personal problems). Does this view of suicidal terrorists not correspond to a view of religion and political action in general as largely self-centered activities? Is there not a Freudian skepticism toward religious-societal rituals underlying your main thesis? What do you think your book says about religion in general?
Around the world, millions of people believe in God and heaven, and their beliefs are real and pure and true. And of course, they value life—which is God’s greatest gift—and don’t throw it away needlessly.
But there is also a tiny percentage which tries to use distorted religious justifications to camouflage their personal pain. My book’s findings should remind us that if we see someone acting in a very unhealthy manner and claiming religion as the cause, there is probably a better explanation for that behavior on a psychological level.
The book contains a chapter which compares between suicide terrorists and school shooters. What’s the main lesson we need to take away from the comparison?
Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and wounded 17 more, filmed a video prior to his attack in which he claimed to be a “martyr” and said “I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.” But we accurately saw past his rhetoric, realizing that he must have serious psychological problems and was not simply sacrificing his life for a cause.
In the book, I show that there are many key similarities between school shooters, rampage shooters, and suicide terrorists—all of whom commit mass murder-suicide. The beauty of comparative analysis is that it allows us to understand each type more accurately. They have a lot in common, including a very rare motive among violent criminals: the desire to acquire fame and glory by killing random, innocent people.
You talk about the destruction of ‘the myth of martyrdom’ as an important preventive measure that needs to be taken. What do you think needs to be done in order for suicide terrorism to become effectively de-glorified?
Muslims, Jews, and Christians all agree that suicide constitutes a crime against God. According to their own statements, terrorists and terrorist sympathizers agree with this religious prohibition of suicide as well.
If we can successfully expose suicide attackers as people who are committing this crime, it will deter many future people from volunteering for suicide missions. It would also show everyone that terrorist organizations have spent years exploiting mentally ill people for their own political purposes.