The Myth of Matrydom:What You Don't Understand about Suicide Attacks

Posted on July 29, 2015

Photo: flickr

According to the conventional wisdom, suicide terrorists are not mentally ill or suicidal—they are psychologically stable individuals who sacrifice themselves for altruistic reasons. As a 2009 article in Psychiatry concluded, “Stressing the importance of social psychology, [our research] emphasizes the ‘normality’ and absence of individual psychopathology of the suicide bombers.” From this perspective, those who carry out “martyrdom operations” in service of radical Islamic ideologies are the product of their contexts. They become the psychological equivalent of the American Marines who were killed in Chattanooga: both sides are willing to risk their lives—and die, if necessary—for a cause they passionately believe in. Not surprisingly, terrorist leaders love this perspective, and they use it to glorify the next wave of suicide attackers.

However, a growing number of scholars are now challenging these assumptions. Ariel Merari’s research team conducted psychological tests of preemptively arrested suicide bombers and found evidence of suicidal tendencies, depressive tendencies, and previous (non-terrorist) suicide attempts. David Lester found that many female suicide bombers seem driven, at least in part, by post-traumatic stress disorder, hopelessness, and despair.

“Martyrdom” has become a dangerous loophole: it is the only way Islamic suicide attackers believe they can guarantee their own death, and yet go to heaven instead of hell. These attack methods help disguise their suicidal motives. It is commonly claimed that they do not want to die, they just care more about harming the enemy than they do about their own survival.

But the disguise is wearing thin. Along with broad efforts to change global perceptions of suicide attackers, it is thus worth considering whether there is some less lethal method we could employ to more often keep these individuals alive. For those who desperately want to be killed in action, this might actually make them reconsider.

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Category(s):Depression, Other

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