Depression, Not Ideology, Drives Suicide Bombers

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What if suicide bombers aren't so much radical as depressed and suicidal? Paul Kix floats this idea in the Boston Globe this past weekend, reviewing the work of a "small cadre of scholars from across the world." The thesis in his report is straightforward: there's a growing amount of research showing that the mostly young people who become suicide bombers are more motivated by depression and isolation rather than a radical ideology. He recounts the story of Qari Sami, a university student with a bomb strapped to his person who walked into a Kabul internet cafe, past the tables and crowd and into a bathroom where he locked the door. And only then did he blow himself up.

The scholars to wchich Kix refers are trying to alter the mainstream perception of what motivates a suicide bomber. Though the idea that a suicide bomber "may in fact be suicidal" sounds painfully obvious, the conclusion, Kix argues, is an important one.

Many Americans, Kix observes, still choose to conjure up an image of a suicide bomber as solely a "brainwashed, religiously fervent automaton, anticipating a paradise of virgins in the clouds." If someone like Mohammed Atta, the ringleader behind the 9/11 hijacking, were seen and understood as something other than a martyr, this reasoning goes, "the next Atta would not have the same effect on the world." In other words, "the more the terrorist is understood, the less damage the terrorist can cause." Will we perceive them differently if we know that "terrorist recruiters [admit] they look for the 'sad guys' for martyrdom"?

The Boston Globe article is not the only one on this theme. This summer University of Maryland social psychologist Arie Kruglanski explained the mindset of a terrorist to the research-based magazine Miller-McCune. His analysis falls in line with many observations in the Globe article:

Terrorists feel that through suicide, their lives will achieve tremendous significance. They will become heroes, martyrs. In many cases, their decision is a response to a great loss of significance, which can occur through humiliation, discrimination or personal problems that have nothing to do with the conflict in which their group is engaged. Sometimes, this loss of significance is felt by individuals who are deviating from the norms of the group, such as women who are infertile or were divorced by their husbands or are accused of extramarital affairs. In traditional societies, they suffer a tremendous amount of humiliation. To compensate for them, some of them do something that is held in extremely high regard by their community: self-sacrifice for the sake of their cause.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.