March 27, 2013
Q&A: Many Suicide Terrorists are Suicidal in the Clinical Sense
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.