Science on Religion

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The myth of marytrdom, part 2

Suicide eyesAs seen in part 1, Adam Lankford (University of Alabama) believes that religious suicide exists part and parcel with suicide in general. In other words, those who tend to become suicide bombers already had suicidal inclinations. The leap from living to suicide bombing stems not from religious ideology but from psychological stress. Part 1 explains why Lankford rejects previous research that seemed to indicate no link between religious suicide and non-religious suicide, and now part 2 will consider positive arguments for his position.

Lankford compares terrorist suicide with “regular” suicide. After reviewing the known cases of suicide terroism, he found no less than 130 cases where the terrorists involved had risk factors for suicide. These factors include depression, post traumatic stress disorder, mental health problems, serious injury, serious physical disability, unexpected death of a loved one, and struggling with a personal crisis. A “personal crisis” includes divorce, adultery, unwanted pregnancy, job problems, rape, sexual assault, and drug use. Lankford freely admits that none of these factors necessarily drives one to suicide, but he would insist that these factors are known precursors to suicide.

For Lankford, the presence of these factors suggests that suicide religious terrorists have more going on inside of the mind than extremist religious ideology. As he puts it, “In a number of these cases, there appeared to be a direct cause-and-effect link between the crisis and the individual’s decision to seek death. The crisis–and the individual’s subsequent inability to cope–could help explain why many of these people who had no prior terrorism experience or terrorist affiliation suddenly volunteered to blow themselves up.”

Several of the aforementioned case studies directly demonstrate his point. For instance, Wafa Idris, the first known female suicide bomber from Palestine, carried out her deed after having fairly recently suffering a miscarriage followed by a divorce. Lankford frankly states that any causal connection would be pure speculation, but at the same time the pattern between personal crises and suicide recurs rather consistently. Again, Lankford says, this does not mean the personal crises caused her to commit suicide, but it does mean that in this case the suicide bomber had the psychological profile of a suicidal person. To dismiss this link hinders understanding.

Moving on to one of the more infamous cases of suicidal terrorism, Lankford analyzes Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers. Lankford identified in Atta 8 of the 11 symptoms of depression, as recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health. These were: (1) persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood, (2) feelings of hopelessness, (3) feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness, (4) loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies, (5) decreased energy and fatigue, (6) appetite and/or weight changes, (7) thoughts of death or suicide and suicide attempts, and (8) restlessness and irritability. To go into a little more detail: Atta believed that “joy kills the heart,” opposed laughing, fun, music, and food (he lamented that one had to eat in order to stay alive), and wrote his last will and testament when only 27 years old. So severe is Atta’s case that many people who suffer from clinical depression have fewer symptoms of depression than Atta.

Of course, none of this definitely proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that suicidal tendencies cause terrorist suicide. But do they need to? In Lankford’s defense, he merely needs to show the connection between general suicide symptoms and the psychological profile of actual suicide terrorists. If successful, it leads to a rather unsurprising result: suicidal people tend to commit suicide, regardless of religious extremism. Perhaps this insight could assist others in sympathizing with terrorists, even those of 9/11.

For more, see “Précis of the myth of martyrdom: what really drives suicide bombers, rampage shooters, and other self-destructive killers” in the journal The Behavioral and Brain Sciences.


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