suicide bomb volunteers .
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Yet another study of suicide bombers was published recently, this time by researchers at the University of Toronto. Like almost all its predecessors, the study refuted the theory that such bombers are motivated by poverty and despair; most, it found, were not economically deprived. It also echoed previous studies in concluding that suicide bombers are not psychologically unstable.
But, again like many of its predecessors, it stopped short of the obvious conclusion: that suicide bombings are, overwhelmingly, a product of the surrounding culture.
The study, which focused on Palestinian bombers, concluded that their primary motivation was a desire for personal vengeance against Israel. Yet that begs an obvious question: If so, why do many violent conflicts not produce suicide bombers? The desire for revenge, after all, is a universal emotion, found in every conflict throughout the ages. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, for instance, were no less eager to avenge the deaths of loved ones than Palestinians are, yet their conflict produced no suicide bombers. The African National Congress produced no suicide bombers in its battle against apartheid, despite a plethora of victims. Wars have killed millions in other non-Islamic African countries without producing a single suicide bombing. Argentina's "dirty war" produced no suicide bombers despite thousands of governmental murders and kidnappings, nor has any other South American conflict. Nor have there been any Jewish suicide bombers, despite thousands of Israeli victims of Arab terror.
The same question applies to those who persist - despite all the studies showing that suicide bombers are typically relatively prosperous and well-educated - in deeming poverty the main motivator. Poverty in much of Africa, for instance, is far worse than in the Palestinian Authority; yet suicide bombings are unknown in non-Islamic parts of that continent.
THE ONLY explanation that consistently fits the data is the social and cultural milieu: Invariably, suicide bombers come from societies that view such bombings as an acceptable and even laudable response to grievance. Societies that deem them unacceptable do not produce suicide bombers.
That explains why most such bombers are Muslims: While an increasingly popular strain of Islam deems suicide bombers "holy martyrs" who merit praise on earth and reward in heaven, they have no such status in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism or animism. Indeed, most religions deem suicide bombings an abomination.
But Islam alone cannot explain this phenomenon: Some Muslim countries, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, produced no suicide bombings despite suffering atrocities, while the predominantly secular Fatah frequently employs such bombings.
In the PA, however, secular society has reproduced the glorification of suicide bombings that Islamic fervor generates in groups like al-Qaida and Hizbullah. As leading Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad Sarraj told the Los Angeles Times in 2002, suicide bombers have "unparalleled" status in Palestinian society. "Their pictures are plastered on public walls, their funerals are emotional celebrations, their families often receive visits from state officials," the paper reported. "They become almost holy, praised by imams at mosques or over loudspeakers at rallies, where children are often dressed as shrouded dead or as pint-sized suicide bombers." "We have here a cultural glorification of martyrs," Sarraj concluded. "If you asked children 20 years ago what they wanted to be when they grew up, they'd say a doctor or an engineer. Now they say they want to be a martyr."
The Shin Bet security service reached an identical conclusion a few years back, based on interviews with would-be bombers who were caught before blowing themselves up. It found that the primary motivation was the desire to be a hero in society's eyes.
How does that square with the new study's finding that the main factor is a desire for revenge? Because while revenge is a universal emotion, its outlet is strongly influenced by culture. If channeling your desire for revenge into a suicide bombing would make you a hero, this becomes an attractive option. If it would make you a pariah, it looks much less attractive.
FAILED BOMBERS' stories illustrate this dynamic. Arin Ahmed, for instance, described how, two months after her boyfriend Jad was killed, she suddenly told some friends that she wanted to avenge him by becoming a suicide bomber. It was a spur-of-the-moment thought, the 20-year-old said in a published 2002 interview; "a moment earlier, I hadn't thought of anything like that."
Four days later, some Fatah operatives arrived and said her bombing was ready. From then on, they never let her alone. "They didn't let me think about it too much," she said. "They pressured me and persuaded me. They told me: You'll gain a very special status among women suicide bombers. You'll be a real heroine. It's for Jad's memory. You'll be reunited with him in heaven. You'll be with him in paradise."
Contrast this with a scene I witnessed at the shiva for a teenage girl killed in a suicide bombing. Her grief-stricken 17-year-old brother screamed that he wanted to avenge her by killing Palestinians. It was a normal teenage reaction, no different from Ahmed's. But his society's response was very different: Rather than being instantly surrounded by people who promised him honor and glory if he acted on this impulse, his father and others present told him unequivocally that this response was unacceptable. And, as in Ahmed's case, societal pressure had an impact: She set off to kill and landed in jail; he worked through his grief and got on with his life.
UNFORTUNATELY, the world largely ignores this all-important cultural factor, deeming anyone who is not a terrorist an "innocent civilian." That is why, for instance, it lambastes Israeli sanctions on Gaza even as Gaza's elected government bombards Israel with rockets: Such sanctions "hurt innocent civilians." Yet Gaza's civilians are not exactly innocent: They elected the terrorist Hamas; they overwhelming support attacks on Israeli civilians (as repeated polls show); and they actively participate, as Sarraj noted, in glorifying such attacks, thereby creating the atmosphere in which they flourish.
If the world truly wants to eradicate terror, it must address the culture factor. And that starts with ending the "innocent civilian" myth. Societies that glorify terror must not be given a free pass.