Method Without Madness?

Suicide bombers are not deranged, psychiatrists say. Under group pressure, they see logic and a 'higher purpose' in their actions.

Los Angeles Times/July 30, 2002
By Benedict Carey

The list includes architects and drifters, engineers and poets, teenagers and middle-aged men, a 30-year-old woman, an 18-year-old girl, and, every week it seems, someone else, someone different.

"You hear people say that these are all desperate people, or poor people whose families need the money," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism specialist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "This is nonsense."

Long before the recent rash of suicide bombings in Israel, psychiatrists, terrorism specialists and others were searching for clues to what prompts people to strap on explosives and annihilate themselves in a crowded street or cafe.

Experts examined psychological profiles. They interviewed Sri Lankan separatists and imprisoned Palestinian militants. They studied the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 and the Japanese kamikaze missions of World War II.

Their emerging understanding contradicts the notion that suicide bombers are deranged fanatics. The evidence is just the opposite: They tend to be free of obvious mental illness. Many are competent, successful, even loving and loved.

What, then, triggers their awful acts?

Most have fallen under the influence of an extreme group, whether it be Al Qaeda, Hamas or the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, experts say. Like a cult, the group demands absolute obedience and promises immortality to the most devoted.

Conditions of chronic conflict and bloodshed endow suicide with a sinister logic. When death seems pervasive and unavoidable, whether in Sri Lanka or a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, members of the group come to value its survival above their own. They become willing, even eager, to sacrifice their lives for a greater cause--a psychological response found not just in terrorist cells, experts note, but among soldiers in wartime.

In the end, the suicide terrorist sees his mission as acceptable, logical, even noble. "It can be perceived as a very idealistic act," said psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School and an author who has studied cults and suicide.

"They believe there's a higher purpose, that in some way they are bringing about a purification, a perfection. They are destroying the world to save it."

A common trait of nonpolitical suicides--people who take their own lives without harming others--is a feeling of isolation or disconnectedness from the world.

Suicide terrorists are anything but isolated. Often, they have connected with others deeply, and it's this affiliation that helps prepare them to take their own lives, said Clark McCauley, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies terrorism.

"It's the group that's abnormal and extreme," McCauley said. "The bombers themselves are psychologically as normal as you and I."

A Wake-Up Call

Americans confronted the horror of suicide attacks on April 18, 1983, when a Shiite Muslim truck bomber attacked the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. Six months later, another truck bomber killed 241 Marines on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.

Since then, more than 300 men, women and children have blown themselves to pieces in suicide attacks around the world. Those carried out by Palestinians in Israel have received the most publicity, but two-thirds of the attacks occurred in Sri Lanka, where Hindu separatists have been waging a guerrilla war for 20 years.

The best evidence that these terrorists are mentally competent is the planning and patience required for many of their missions.

The Sri Lankan woman known as Dhanu who killed former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 prepared for months, performing several practice runs, according to Gunaratna, the terrorism expert.

Dhanu, a member of the Tamil Tigers separatist group, got so close to Gandhi that she was able to reach out and touch him before pulling a cord beneath her dress and ending both their lives, witnesses said.

Another Tamil bomber, Babu, worked for many months to infiltrate the household of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa before killing him in a 1993 suicide attack.

Wafa Idris, a Palestinian woman who blew herself up in Jerusalem in January, killing an 81-year-old man, was a volunteer paramedic who had founded a women's relief group to assist victims of the conflict with Israel. She was not known as an Islamic extremist.

The 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. stayed in touch and under cover for many months before executing their well-coordinated plan.

Some attended flight schools and spent hours practicing on flight simulators.

Their leader, Mohamed Atta, grew up in a middle-class Egyptian family and appeared to have a promising career ahead of him as an architect and urban planner. Ziad Jarrah, another of the suicide pilots, was educated, well-off and said by his Lebanese family to be planning to get married.

These did not appear to be mentally unbalanced people, researchers say. Indeed, crazed loners are not likely to be selected for suicide missions.

"The crucial quality that recruiters look for is mental stability," said Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist at George Washington University who recently completed a study of 35 Palestinian militants in Israeli jails, several of whom had recruited suicide attackers.

In addition to levelheadedness, terrorist organizations look for a willingness to conform and obey.

Those qualities are not hard to find, research shows. Regardless of education or background, most people have a tendency to follow instructions, especially when given by an authority figure who promotes a larger cause.

In a series of now-famous experiments during the early 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram showed how this instinctive obedience can lead people to cross an ethical line. The authority in this case was a scientist; the larger cause, a learning experiment in which electric shocks would be used to "teach" word associations to a middle-aged man (an associate of Milgram's who was not actually being shocked).

The participants began by delivering mild shocks, then gradually increased the voltage. By the end, 60% were delivering 450-volt blasts--even when the "victim" screamed for them to stop.

This is the same principle on which many terrorist groups operate. They begin by asking members to take small risks and gradually up the ante, said the University of Pennsylvania's McCauley.

The Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Marxist Red Brigades in Italy and the Symbionese Liberation Army of California included middle-class, well-educated people who graduated from protest to murder under the sway of impassioned leaders.

Such groups demand total commitment and fealty. "Commanders in Hamas"--the Islamic resistance movement in Gaza and the West Bank--"are commanders in every way," an imprisoned terrorist told researchers working with Post, the George Washington University psychiatrist. "A commander's orders are absolutely binding and must not be questioned in substance."

In the case of the Tamil Tigers, Post said, "there's almost a chemical connection that seems to develop between the personality of the leader"--the reclusive Velupillai Prabhakaran--"and those of the followers. It's as if the followers merge with each other and with what the leader says."

In an eerie echo of Jonestown, Prabhakaran's acolytes are said to wear cyanide containers around their necks in case of capture.

Suicide as a Statement

The latter 20th century offers many examples of suicide as a political or religious statement, however eccentric or inscrutable. In Northern Ireland in 1981, 10 prisoners starved themselves to death to protest British rule. In 1978, more than 900 American followers of People's Temple leader Jim Jones poisoned themselves on his orders at the Jonestown compound in Guyana.

Five years ago, Marshall Applewhite and 38 of his followers in the Heaven's Gate cult killed themselves in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

They expected to shed their earthly bonds and travel to a "next level" of existence on a spacecraft they believed was shadowing the Hale-Bopp comet.

Many commentators have cited Christianity's taboo against suicide as a protection against such extremism. In Christian teaching, to kill oneself is to sinfully reject God's gift of life. Yet the ban was imposed in the 5th century partly to halt an epidemic of suicide among early Christians, according to Jaroslav Pelikan, a Yale University expert on the history of the faith.

In those early centuries of the church's history, many believers saw suicide as a means to prove their faith, cleanse themselves of sin and leave the pain of this life for the bliss of the next. The popularity of suicide among some groups prompted St. Augustine to remark that "to kill themselves out of respect for martyrdom is their daily sport."

In Islam, too, strong prohibitions against suicide coexist with a rich history of martyrdom. The Persian Assassins of the 11th century, sometimes called the Muslim Hashshashin, were said to smoke hashish before carrying out suicide assassinations. In the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Iranian children as young as 14 and unarmed were sent into battle. Some reportedly had "keys to paradise" hanging from their necks.

Groups that sponsor suicide attacks invoke both the future world and the ancient one to recruit and inspire. After Sept. 11, investigators found letters in Arabic believed to have been written by Atta, the presumed ringleader. The letters emphasize the importance of "obeying 100%"; instruct the attackers to be courageous, "as our predecessors [were] when they came to the battle"; and promise that "paradise has been decorated for you with the best of its decorations and ornaments."

"It's hard to accept for outsiders, but from the bombers' point of view, they don't actually die in a suicide attack--they become immortal," said Gunaratna, whose recent book, "Inside Al Qaeda," details the ideological indoctrination that occurred at Osama bin Laden's training camps. "It's not the end, but the beginning. You are surviving in a way; you are being granted an eternal life."

Bonding as Soldiers

In their willingness to sacrifice all for their group, suicide bombers have something in common with traditional soldiers, say researchers who have studied heroism in combat.

If a war becomes sufficiently destructive and prolonged, troops lose faith that they will survive, said David Marlowe, former chief of military psychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md. The question becomes not whether one will die, but how. Under these conditions, small groups of soldiers forge an often-unspoken pact to do anything for the good of their comrades.

"It creates a kind of bonding between members, a love that transcends anything you've ever known," Marlowe said. "You come to the absolute belief that the noblest and most important thing you can do is die for the others."

Perhaps the most vivid example of suicide attacks committed for comrades and country was those by Japan's kamikaze squads in World War II. In their oral history, "Japan at War," Haruko Taya Cook and her husband, Theodore Cook, interviewed several former members of Japan's "special attack corps," who survived because their missions were canceled or foiled.

One of them, Yokota Yutaka, recalled the words his Naval Academy commander used to recruit suicide attackers: "If there be any among you who burn with a passion to die gloriously for the sake of their country, let them step forward."

Yutaka said that all but 120 of the 2,000 young men in his academy volunteered. On April 20, 1945, Yutaka climbed aboard a motorized suicide torpedo, said goodbye to his comrades in arms and awaited the order to launch. It never came.

"I was ordered to come back in," he said. "That was the moment I really wanted to die."

Post, the George Washington University researcher, found a similar yearning among the Palestinian militants he studied. One of them is serving 26 life terms for his role in several suicide bombings. In a prison interview, the man recalled learning from a confederate that another suicide attack was in the works:

"I asked him what it was all about, and he told me that he had been on the wanted list for a long time and did not want to get caught without realizing his dream of being a suicide bomber.... I remember that besides the tremendous respect I had for him and the fact that I was jealous of him, I also felt slighted that he had not asked me [to join him]."

People who have witnessed or been subjected to violence are particularly susceptible to this call to immortality, researchers say. The families of Palestinian suicide bombers often cite motives of revenge for a father or brother killed or beaten by Israeli soldiers.

In Sri Lanka's contested territory, the 19-year civil war has left very few people untouched by violence. The tragedy and nearness of death are such that even children become fatalistic, according to Margaret Trawick, an anthropologist at Massey University in New Zealand who lived in Sri Lanka during the late 1990s.

Based on conversations with a dozen girls and young women who belonged to the Tamil Tigers, Trawick concluded that joining the group is itself a kind of suicide gesture: "They have no ideology but for the words 'I want to fight.' ... Most expect to die in battle, and many will die in just that way. They think their lives are unimportant, and they think the same of their deaths. They seek no fame, they ask no voice. They do wish to be remembered."

So, for that matter, does the person who jumps off a bridge, psychiatrists say. If there's a common thread connecting all suicides, perhaps it is that desire: to have done something memorable, whether for an audience of one or two or for the entire world.

In his 1990 book, "The Savage God," the British poet and literary critic A. Alvarez, a failed suicide himself, writes that suicide is "a closed world with its own irresistible logic. Once a man decides to take his own life, he enters a shut-off, impregnable but wholly convincing world where every detail fits and each incident reinforces his decision."

Once a member of Hamas or the Tamil Tigers has begun to consider a suicide attack, the same kind of hermetic logic applies, experts say. Only by destruction can the world be renewed; only by killing can the group live; only by leaving the world can you leave a mark on it.

"I think in this sense," said Lifton, the Harvard psychiatrist, "all suicide has to do with making a lasting statement one could not make in life."

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