Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.

Suicide attackers motivated by devotion to cause, experts say.
Erica Goode

To a nation suddenly plunged into horror and grief, they seemed like acts of unspeakable madness.

Yet the attacks visited on New York and Washington on Tuesday were in all likelihood the work of perfectly sane people, said experts on the psychology of terrorism.

Although such incidents are often called suicide attacks, the experts said, the terrorists themselves are usually not suicidal in any common sense of the word. They do not qualify for any psychiatric diagnosis. They are not impelled by depression, despair or low self-esteem.

"The conventional psychiatric understanding of what goes into individual suicides simply doesn't help us understand this,'' said Dr. Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology and international affairs at George Washington University. "You have to look at this as a social phenomenon.''

Studies suggest that those willing to sacrifice their lives in an attack are almost never the disturbed loners sometimes conjured by the media or by Hollywood films. Instead, they are almost always part of a larger organization that has recruited them, tested their courage and trained them to carry out their missions with precision.

Although Tuesday's attackers have yet to be identified, suicide attacks are a common tactic in the conflict in the Middle East, and several researchers have studied them there.

Dr. Ariel Merari, a psychologist at Tel Aviv University who has profiled more than 60 Palestinian and Lebanese suicide bombers, said they were often young men who were recruited after expressing a desire to give their lives for the Arab cause. He said the bombers he studied ranged in age from 17 to 38 -- the average was 22 -- and represented a cross section of Palestinian society. "In terms of socioeconomic status and level of education, they just covered the whole range, from very poor families to very rich families,'' he said. Once recruited, Merari added, the volunteers are placed in training that can last weeks or months. They receive practical instruction in matters like how to handle a bomb, but they also undergo psychological indoctrination, intended to motivate them to move past "the point of no return.''

The history of suicide attacks stretches back at least to the 11th century, when the Assassins, the disciples of the Persian master Alamut, conducted suicide raids on neighboring fortresses. The Koran forbids suicide, Post noted, but he added that suicide bombers often consider their deaths acts of heroism, not self-destruction, and believe they will be elaborately rewarded in the afterlife.
Dr. Harvy W. Kushner, an expert in terrorism and chairman of the department of criminal justice at Long Island University, noted that suicide attacks are not condoned by most Muslins, but are espoused "by leaders of religious factions within the Islamic community'' who have what he described as "a contorted view of what is spiritually permissible.'' But in one case, he said, recruits were tested by being made to lie in an open grave all night reciting verses from the Koran. "The person who does this does not see himself as giving up his life at a premature point,'' Kushner said. "He sees it as for the greater good of society. And for us who try to guard against this, it's disastrous.''
Indeed, after their deaths, suicide bombers are often celebrated as heroes by their families and their communities, said Dr. Vamık Volkan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School and an expert on interethnic conflict. At one time, Volkan, said, "the terrorist group Hamas put the pictures of boys who had died in suicide bombings on stamps, which were collected and traded by other teen-agers. With salvation as the goal and in the context of a larger society that condones such actions, even very sane people are capable of extreme violence."
In this sense, said Dr. Clark McCauley, a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, suicide bombers are no different than the members of any elite fighting group, trained to subvert their own welfare for what they see as the common good. "If only it were true that only psychopaths can be terrorists, the terrorist problem would be nothing,'' McCauley said.


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Last modified on: Apr 20, 2016