[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: Why do suicide bombers do it?

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Why do suicide bombers do it?

    By Christopher Shea  |  July 3, 2005

    Four years ago, the late Susan Sontag was excoriated for arguing, in a
    brief New Yorker piece, that the attacks that brought down the World
    Trade Center were inspired not by hatred of ''civilization" or ''the
    free world" but rather by opposition to ''specific American alliances
    and actions." Today that argument--seen by hawks in those dark
    post-Sept. 11 days as treasonously empathetic--has become a
    commonplace in the latest political science work on terrorism.

    No one, for example, is hurling charges of crypto-treason at Robert A.
    Pape, an associate professor of political science at the University of
    Chicago known for hard-nosed studies of air power in wartime. But
    Pape's new book, ''Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide
    Terrorism" (Random House), which grew out of a much-cited 2003 article
    in the American Political Science Review, is prime example of the
    mainstreaming of Sontag's once-taboo view. ''Suicide terrorism is a
    response to occupation," Pape says in a phone interview. ''Islamic
    fundamentalism has very little to do with it."

    ''Dying to Win" draws on a thorough database of all suicide attacks
    recorded since the contemporary practice was born during the Lebanese
    civil war in the early 1980s: a total of 315 incidents through 2003,
    involving 462 suicidal attackers. Of the 384 attackers for whom Pape
    has data, who committed their deeds in such danger zones as Sri Lanka
    (where the decidedly non-fundamentalist, quasi-Marxist Tamil Tigers
    have used suicide attacks since 1987 in their fight for a Tamil
    homeland), Israel, Chechnya, Iraq, and New York, only 43 percent came
    from religiously affiliated groups. The balance, 57 percent, came from
    secular groups. Strikingly, during the Lebanese civil war, he says,
    some 70 percent of suicide attackers were Christians (though members
    of secular groups).

    The thrust of his argument is that suicide terrorism is an eminently
    rational strategy. Everywhere it has been used, the countries that
    face it make concessions: The United States left Lebanon; Israel
    withdrew from Lebanon and now (much of) the West Bank; and Sri Lanka
    gave the Tamils a semiautonomous state.

    Since occupation spurs terrorism, Pape concludes that America should
    ''expeditiously" (but not recklessly) withdraw troops from Iraq. It
    should also reduce its energy dependence on the Middle East, refrain
    from posting troops in the Gulf States, and return to a strategy of
    balancing the Middle Eastern countries against one another from
    afar--policy prescriptions that have inspired criticism apart from his
    social science. (''Wouldn't [Pape's recommendations] be the ultimate
    concession to the suicide strategy?" Martin Kramer, a specialist in
    Middle Eastern studies, asked after the 2003 article appeared.)

    In the views of some critics, Pape's original article erred by
    dismissing all talk of religious or cultural factors in suicide
    bombings. If suicide attacks were a universally rational weapon of the
    weak, the critics argued, we would see them everywhere--and we don't.
    In fact, in a fascinating contribution to the new essay collection
    ''Making Sense of Suicide Missions" (Oxford), the Yale political
    scientist Stathis Kalyvas and a Spanish colleague, Ignacio Sanchez
    Cuenca, point out that FARC, the Columbian rebel group, once hatched a
    plan to fly a plane into that country's presidential palace but could
    find no willing pilot, even after dangling an offer of $2 million for
    the pilot's family. In addition, the Basque group ETA has rejected
    offers from its members to blow themselves up for the cause.

    But in the book, Pape reconsiders those cultural factors: Suicide
    bombing, he now writes, is most likely to happen when the occupying
    force and the ''occupied" insurgents are from different religious
    backgrounds. (The Tamil minority in Sri Lanka are mostly Hindu and
    Christian; the Sinhalese majority are Buddhists.)

    Research by other scholars backs up this point. David Laitin, a
    Stanford University expert on civil wars, and Eli Berman, an economist
    at the University of California at San Diego, have demonstrated that
    while only 18 percent of the 114 civil wars since 1945 have pitted
    members of one religious group against another, fully 90 percent of
    suicide attacks take place in inter-religious conflicts.

    Laitin and Berman, too, view suicide terrorism as following impeccable
    game-theory logic: When your targets are ''hard" and the enemy is
    wealthy, well armed, and possessed of good intelligence, they write,
    suicide bombing begins to make sense as a strategy.

    However, Diego Gambetta, an Oxford University sociologist and the
    editor of ''Making Sense of Suicide Missions," thinks these claims of
    rationality among self-immolators go a bit too far. First, do the
    attacks achieve as much as Pape contends? Israel had already committed
    to pulling out of the West Bank under the Oslo accords when a fresh
    wave of attacks came in 1994 and 1995. Far from causing the
    withdrawal, he argues, the attacks may in fact have heightened Israeli
    resistance to it.

    Then there's the question of Islam. There may be non-Islamic suicide
    bombers, Gambetta writes. But ''we do not have even a single case of a
    non-Islamic faith justifying" suicide missions.

    Gambetta makes a tentative cultural-historical argument, tracing the
    suicidal impulse in the Middle East back to the Iran-Iraq war, when
    thousands of fundamentalist Iranian soldiers marched into certain
    death against Iraqi tank formations. That strain of self-sacrifice
    then spread into Lebanon and Palestine and now Iraq, through a badly
    understood dynamic.

    Conflicting theories aside, social scientists have made strides in
    understanding suicide bombers. Once considered the dregs of the earth
    (poor, uneducated, sexually starved), they have been shown--by Claude
    Berrebi, of the RAND Institute, among others--to be, on average,
    better educated and better off than their countrymen. Nevertheless,
    all the work on suicide terrorism has one major, merciful shortcoming:
    sample size. ''No matter how you count terrorist attacks, we are still
    well short of 1,000 of these episodes" since 1980, Gambetta says. Hard
    as it is to believe amid the grim daily dispatches from Iraq, suicide
    bombing remains, among the infinite numbers of ways humans cause
    bloodshed, exceedingly rare.

    Christopher Shea's Critical Faculties column appears in Ideas
    biweekly. E-mail [2]critical.faculties at verizon.net.

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