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Psychology of Suicide Bombing

Flight from Death profoundly influenced the direction of the Words Matter project. One of the critical points to be considered is, “What in human nature allows and/or causes a person to become a suicide bomber?” Is it some sort of mind control, by a talented handler, or is there something in religion, that is the driving force? The truth seems to be that the tendency, to kill oneself for one’s beliefs, is hard wired into the human psyche.

Watching the DVD, that September morning, as Debbi had insisted, immediately canalized my thinking, through the elegance and simplicity of its argument. The basic idea is that in psychological terms, each of us wants to make a difference during our lifetime. We all want to be a “hero” in some large or small way. This heroism can be manifested through raising children, leaving works of art or poetry, by philanthropy, or by leaving large piles of money to our heirs. There is no limit to the number of possibilities. Knowing that we will die is terrifying to all of us, but it is hard wired in the human being that, if we know that our lives counted in the “great ledger book” of the species, we can somehow face our death with more equanimity. Though dying is never easy. As W.C. Fields had engraved on his tombstone, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

Since Sheldon Solomon is the hero of this chapter, at least, the fact that I have written about him here could be seen as one plus mark on the great ledger book of humanity. His colleagues, Jeffrey Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski were no less important to the research, because this team of researchers has held itself together, through thick and thin, for decades, adding depth to the insights of Ernest Becker (Denial of Death and Escape from Evil) through over 300 field studies in social psychology. Meanwhile, Dr. Neil Elgee has nurtured Becker’s memory and vision through The Ernest Becker Foundation.

When you watch the DVD, you will recognize Sheldon as that articulate academic in the colorful tie died T-shirt. His voice and demeanor are so mesmerizing that one is immediately drawn into his topic.

Greg Bennick and Patrick Shen were kind enough to put subtitles in the documentary, identifying who the speakers were. From this, I learned that Sheldon was at Skidmore College, only a 2.5 hour drive from my ancestral home, which I visit regularly. Since it was apparent that Terror Management Theory (“TMT”) was such a crucial element of my project, I immediately wanted to speak with one of the highlighted experts in the DVD. Sheldon was the closest, so I decided to begin with him.

Our first interview was a disaster! Sheldon was his naturally gracious and articulate self, giving me a 2-hour private lesson in TMT, which has proven invaluable throughout the project. But, since it was my first major interview, there were some issues. It has come as a surprise to me that major colleges and universities do not seem to have adequate venues for conducting private interviews, which have nothing to do with their mainstream business of educating their students. Skidmore is no exception, so we set up the cameras in Sheldon’s faculty office. Like so many faculty offices, and my office is no exception, Sheldon’s, after decades of producing intellectual literature, can only be described as a “black hole.” Indeed, that is the affectionate and official name Debbi has assigned to my sanctum sanctorum, so I know the genre. (This book is being written on my dining room table). Once we cleared a few square inches of debris, so that we could set up my tripods, we began, with me not realizing that the top of an open cardboard box, at the level of my head, appeared to be sticking in my ear throughout the entire interview. Worse was the sound. My cheap $100 wireless microphones interacted with the fluorescent lighting to produce a steady hum throughout the tapes, which have proven to be unusable. Fortunately, Sheldon gave me the benefit of the doubt, and agreed to do everything all over again a month later. As you can see, the venue we could find for our non-Skidmore activity was still lacking in polished pundit finesse, but, by that point, I was happy to take what I could get. For anyone reading this and considering becoming a maker of documentary films of any type, I recommend you use Sennheiser’s wireless microphones, at about $500 each. They allow you to electronically determine whether you have radio frequency interference before you begin. But I digress!

The big issue to be addressed was, “How can it be that Al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations, find it so easy to recruit suicide bombers, at least from a TMT point of view?” The answer seems to be that most of the people who become suicide bombers have led hopeless and frustrating lives. In the case of the toxic demographic, which I mentioned in the Introduction, many young men in the Muslim World are extremely repressed. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, per se, but rather with the effectiveness of their leaders in dealing with the modern World, in the context of unholy political truces between fundamentalist Muslim clerics and secular leaders. This is not so different from the unholy alliance between the current Administration, and fundamentalist Christian leaders in the United States, who claim to control the keys to the White House. Margaret Atwood described the consequences of such alliances, in her chilling novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which healthy young women become baby factories for privileged older men while young men are sent off to war.

In many parts of the Muslim World, repressive regimes, with little understanding of economics, in the modern sense, have forced their populations into poverty with their regressive policies. Young men, filled with testosterone, have no access of any kind of release for their energy, except the mosque, and what few video games and boring television programs they are allowed. There are few local sports teams, their education is lacking, which means that they do not have the skills to perform the jobs their governments inadvertently give to foreigners, and there are no women, with whom they are allowed to pass some time, regardless of how benign the activity. As a result, these young men are not adapted to reasonable and productive lives in society. Their lives, and the chance to “make a difference,” leaving their contributions on great ledger of mankind, are dead ends.

Given this hopeless scenario for millions of ignorant young men, and given that much of the paltry social life they are permitted is at the mosque, it is little wonder that their psyche’s tell them that, if they cannot make a difference in this life, then at least they can die as a hero, and count on Allah’s ledger book. Furthermore, they have been told with great authority, by their elders (who have never tried it), that heaven is beautiful, and filled with the young virgins they cannot meet in this life. There are stories, too, that some misdirected individuals and governments pay thousands of dollars for a suicide bomber, so it is not surprising that these misguided young people, men and women alike, are attracted to the idea of, at least, being a family hero by leaving a financial legacy behind.

The problem of terrorism and suicide bombings, therefore, boils down to hopelessness. To the extent we stand by and condone the policies of governments, which keep their populations in ignorance and poverty, we too are to blame for the results. In my view, Americans need to understand that it is not alright, as long as poverty and ignorance are far from our shores. Those factors drive terrorism, which is the greatest threat to our way of life. When everyone can live in dignity, and provide for their children in a reasonable manner, the threat of terrorism will subside. Until then, we are destined to live in fear. It does not take much to destroy our prosperity. One hundred dollars worth of box cutters cost our society $1 trillion, according to some estimates. We need to find ways to spread our prosperity around the World, and will include confronting some of our allies about the deficiencies of their domestic policies. In my view, if we are going to “stay the course” until “final victory,” that is what it will take.

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