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Updated 18 May 2008

Public figures in the US have called suicide terrorists crazy cowards. They say that the goals of such terrorists are senseless destruction and that terrorists thrive in poverty and ignorance. President Bush called the 9/11 hijackers "evil cowards." Senator John Warner supports pre-emptive actions against terrorists because: "Those who would commit suicide in their assaults on the free world are not rational and not deterred by rational concepts." [D. Von Drehle, Washington Post, 7 Oct 2002]. US Government and media often characterize suicide bombers as individuals who are craven homicidal lunatics.

Emotional stuff for sure. However, these statements are right in only one respect: the immediate goal of the suicide terrorist is the destruction of life and property--of their perceived enemies. Furthermore, suicide terror goes back into history about as far as terrorism itself does. Both the Jewish Zealots and Islamic Assassins practiced the suicidal art.

There are several problems with such a mindless, shoot-from-the-hip or "all-knowing" attitude exhibited in the first paragraph about the origins of terrorism. Research into the backgrounds of dozens of suicide terrorists show these people are neither crazy nor cowardly. For example, Muhammed Atta came from the intelligentsia of Egypt that was steeped in Islamic fundamentalism. Bin Laden was well educated and from a wealthy family. Further, all significant instances of suicidal terror arise from organized terror groups, they are very rarely the work of an individual.

We are hardly dealing with psychotics. Suicidal terrorists are perfectly sane. For the most part, they are not ignorant.

Typical suicide terrorists are often described as:

  • Unmarried
  • Under 30 years of age; many under 20
  • Modestly to well educated
  • Religious, serious students of the Qur'an
  • Respectable job holders
  • Feeling confused, desperate, humiliated, and traumatized
  • Alienated from society
  • Loyal to and influenced by intimate cohorts of peers
  • Believing martyrdom brings everlasting life in paradise with 72 virgins and is worth more than continued existence in miserable surroundings
  • Feel trapped by the recruiter and his/her organization
  • Believing their actions will make their family proud
  • Seeking retribution
  • Belonging to a subculture involved in or exposed to violence

How recruiting used to work is that recruiters would scout mosques, schools, and refugee camps for suitable candidates. Those proving susceptible to indoctrination by religious communion became suicidal terrorists. Their rewards were in the hereafter and enhanced family prestige for those left behind. Various means were used to prevent them from backing out, once committed.

After the second intifada began in response to Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount, recruiters were swamped with candidates. Massive retaliation by Israel only made matters worse by increasing the sense of victimization. Readiness to join terror organizations structured to take advantage of such feelings increased. In this way, suicide terrorism and massive retaliation feed on one another. Even a few women are now motivated toward suicide terror. Palestine has become a deeply polarized region.

From a psychological view, Stanley Milgram performed some famous scientific experiments that illustrate what is most likely a universal feature. Ordinary people will readily and blindly obey orders to induce pain and presumably even death given certain circumstances. Milgram was motivated by the My Lai massacre and the extreme response of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State where ordinary people in very different circumstances slaughtered ordinary innocent people.

In each case observers saw the events for what they were--mindless over-reactions, atrocities. Indeed additional atrocities in Vietnam are coming to light even now (Dec 2003).

Milgram's experiments, of course, did not actually hurt anyone, but his subjects did not know that. All they knew was that they were engaging in a study-in-learning motivation with their "instructor." Their illusion was that they were participating an experiment where punishment was applied to "students" failing to learn. That punishment was an electric shock, the magnitude of which was increased with each failure to learn. The level of shocks "permitted" were potentially life threatening. An accomplice of Milgram played the role of the learner to complete the illusion. No electric current was involved, but the accomplice acted as if there was. Milgram's subjects were males recruited off the streets of New Haven, Connecticut.

Milgram found most of his subjects willing to inflict significant "electric shocks." Most also exhibited increasing stress with "increasing voltage"--made apparent with the help of the hidden actor emoting increasing pain as the "voltage" increased. Still, most of Milgram's subjects increased the voltage when told to do so by their "instructor."

From Milgram. "No amount of screams and pleading brought this process of visiting violence upon another to a stop. Milgram found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks--up to 450 volts--to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, and this fact was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. But, during the experiment itself, the experience was a powerfully real and gripping one for most participants."

Milgram also encountered a few "oddballs" who felt neither guilt nor remorse for the role they played. They pegged the needle at 450V as calmly as one would playing a card at bridge. Ask Martha Stout or Robert Hare about these "oddballs" and you will hear all about the Sociopath or Psychopath respectively. It is now our considered opinion, that these are the people behind most of the organized violence now so endemic on earth.

Milgram made a profound discovery.

Ordinary Americans will engage in life-threatening
simply out of obligation to an "authority figure"
no matter how superficial.

Milgram's conclusion may be restated as a generality:

Extreme behavior can be elicited from individuals
by circumstances imposed by others.

This insight into humanity has profound consequences in our times. We may think we are tough-minded, but we are not. Milgram pointed out how readily even well-educated Americans can be induced into terror-like behavior. Given the victimization felt by Muslims, and their Authoritarian religion, suicide terror becomes a predictable result. In the Muslim view, they are only acting as holy warriors on command by Allah, through their mullahs of course. Muslims see their cause as just. In like manner, Americans who perceive a threat from bin Laden or whomever, imminent or not, will go to war with little more visible excuse than Milgram's subjects had. Like their Muslim brethren, Americans feel justified in going to war.

In short, people can be manipulated. Mullahs and presidents alike employ that facility.

An educator we know sees our school system in a similar vein. Emphasis on test scores loaded with punitive measures for "failing" lead teachers to teach to tests, not how to think. Schools heavily loaded with Spanish-speaking immigrant kids are effectively discriminated against, at least in California. If their students fail to make the grade, the school has to notify all parents of that fact and suffer reduced funding.

Punitive controls that required conformity to a national standard fail at the most basic level of motivation. High test scores can only be achieved by rote drill at the expense of how to think. This, of course, fits the Neocon and Plutocratic agendas perfectly. Continuing this trend to the extreme will produce the elite society where only the rich are taught to think with insight. This is not just a Republican problem, it is a national problem the Democrats have not handled well either.

Find ways to motivate our teachers and they will take care of educating our kids. Give them political freedom and they will teach political freedom. But the win/lose aspect (Authoritarian by its very nature) must be removed from the system if we are to thrive as a true democracy. It is only good at producing automatons. Sadly, our schools have become bureaucracies modeled after the Federal Government, which by its very nature is authoritarian, win/lose.

Between them, Milgram and Adorno explain both the Muslim and American responses to a fundamental conflict between cultures. Each society, being Authoritarian, responds on an emotional basis in their own authoritarian ways without any need for logic, rhyme, or reason. This tendency is in our genes. Not for all of us, just most of us; Milgram's sample is representative. In the case of Iraq, there surely was just cause for a regime change. But the case was never made; the war was exhorted on the basis of "suspected" weapons of mass destruction and connections with al Qaida. Both proved groundless, of course.

Genocidal, Hussein surely was, and that case alone should have been sufficient for UN action and also to pass muster before the court of world opinion. Iraq, of course, was not the only such regime; it was just the most convenient and it sat on gigantic oil reserves vital to "American interests." Having a strong UN is not on the Neocon radar screen.

Given Zionism's history in Palestine, the very real Nuclear Threat of our times and America's military imperialism, war between America and the Middle East on some level at some time has precedent in history. The 20th Century and its Zionism set the stage. We can only hope that we, like Israel, will not end up behind an iron wall. Becoming more enlightened seems an obvious alternative.

Whatever its causes, Suicide terrorism is now institutionalized. War in Iraq serves to further that institutionalization by spawning yet more groups of terrorists. War in Iraq is also a wake-up call to moderate Muslims who live in advance of their written creed. War in Iraq will surely frighten the despotic rulers and imams. At least these are lessons from history. And so it is turning out, in part, for Libya has just renounced weapons of mass destruction as part of a political trend that began before 9/11. This was a Libyan initiative by all reports.

How this triad of possibilities works out in the end remains to be seen. One historical precedence would be simply a continuation of the status quo. Zionism in Palestine is a type example for that eventuality. The roots of the Palestinian conflict were there for all to see, and came long before Adorno and Milgram. It is most ironic that the man with the foresight into coming events in Palestine was himself a leading and insightful Zionist. See Iron Wall.

Living in Iraq behind an iron wall, as Israel now essentially does, seems unlikely, unless we shove aside the local people and become occupiers as the Zionists did of Palestinian lands after WW II.

Moderate Muslims are our greatest hope for permanent change. Some can be found on other pages of this site; they are all expatriates. Moderates living in the Middle East can only maintain low profiles. Apostates are killed or imprisoned in may parts of the Middle East. They are universally hated. Women are finding trouble being heard in Afghanistan, proof that liberalized society takes time to develop. Women in Baghdad are now more at risk for abduction and rape than they were under Hussein.

As for the despots, we can only hope they will recognize Iraq as their own type example. Those that do, could cut their potential losses by modernizing their societies. Civil wars could well erupt in that process. But it would at least be the Muslims themselves deciding on their future. Most Muslims, counting both genders, would likely opt for freedom with an assured right to hold whatever religious beliefs they chose. Iraq taught a lesson there, too. The Kurds set an example that, if followed, could fragment the Middle East even further with little likelihood of permanent peace.

Ethnic integration in all facets of society
is the key to social harmony.
Nothing less seems to work.

The sticky problem for either the moderates or benevolent-inclined despots is that the Qur'an, Hadith, and Shariah law add up to a governance system that has some 14 centuries of historical precedence. "Who needs a secular state?" is a valid but pointed historical question. Moderates and despots alike will be opposed by the Fundamentalists who are more avid by nature than the typical moderate. Fundamentalists exert more force than their mere numbers justify in most societies, including the American.

It will take far more statesmanship than is now evident in the world to set a course that brings about a just and permanent peace out of the current conflicts (that must include Palestine, al Qaida and the like.) Nothing less than a World Reformation is needed with secular international law prevailing.

The problem for Americans will be to yield any sovereignty at all for the sake of ensuring peace. America is a superpower, but only militarily. In diplomacy and economics Europe has essentially caught up. Can we hope to win a lasting peace by putting America first in all matters? Is not what is best for all the world's citizens also best for America? Does our concept of democracy begin and end at our borders?

Inspiration for the above and some of the material on this page came from Scott Atran, Science, 7 March 2003, Vol. 299.

If your goal is to understand suicidal terror in the larger scope of terror, see Jessica Stern; "Terror in the Name of God." Ms Stern makes clear that there are motives beyond religion. She also makes clear that religion is too often a central component. See, also: Religion and Violence for another eye opener.

From the web:

Religion and Modernity -- Vincent Pecora, Univ. Calif.
Logic of Suicide Attacks -- The American Conservative
The Phenomenon -- Evolutionary Economics

The evidence from many quarters is now compelling. Suicide terrorism is in fact multiple insurrections against foreigners seen as occupiers. History indicates insurrections usually win in the end--which may be a long time coming. For this reason alone, it is pointless to stay in Iraq. Afghanistan is evolving into a similar quagmire. There might well have been a window of opportunity in 2002, but it is now shut tight--like a drum.

Israel is in similar and dire straights. As long as Israel occupies Arab lands, it will be targeted. Jabotinsky was spot on when he predicted the only way Zionism could survive is behind an Iron Wall with outside support. And so it came to pass.


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