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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Are suicide jihadists just like Western mass murderers?

From Adam Lankford in the NYT:
For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are rational political actors, while suicidal rampage shooters are mentally disturbed loners. But the two groups have far more in common than has been recognized.

Over the last three years, I have examined interviews, case studies, suicide notes, martyrdom videos and witness statements and found that suicide terrorists are indeed suicidal in the clinical sense — which contradicts what many psychologists and political scientists have long asserted. Although suicide terrorists may share the same beliefs as the organizations whose propaganda they spout, they are primarily motivated by the desire to kill and be killed — just like most rampage shooters.

In fact, we should think of many rampage shooters as nonideological suicide terrorists. In some cases, they claim to be fighting for a cause — neo-Nazism, eugenics, masculine supremacy or an antigovernment revolution — but, as with suicide terrorists, their actions usually stem from something much deeper and more personal.

...I can’t help but wonder about Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho and Adam Lanza. If they had been born in Gaza or the West Bank, shaped by terrorist organizations’ hateful propaganda, would they have strapped bombs around their waists and blown themselves up? I’m afraid the answer is yes.
The analogy is misleading.

There is a fundamental difference between rampage shooters and suicide terrorists. Shooters are abhorred in the West, while terrorists are honored in the Arab world.

It is true that many people in the West seek fame - there is no shortage of people willing to make fools of themselves on reality TV. It is also true that a tiny minority of people who already have mental problems will be attracted to the idea of dying in a blaze of glory with 24-hour news coverage. But their desire for fame is despite society's horror at their acts, not because of it.

In the Middle East, it is quite the opposite. It is not news that the actual people recruited for suicide missions are not always the most mentally stable people to begin with, while they are manipulated by their leaders. But that is the point - they do not become suicide bombers on their own in their bedrooms, they are recruited, trained and supported by large organizations that create entire media empires around the glory of "martyrdom."

The two are not remotely comparable. In the West, the shooters act in opposition to the prevailing morality of society, in the Arab world they act in harmony with it.

While Lankford may be right in saying that Harris, Kleibold and Lanza may have become suicide terrorists had they been brought up in the sickening Palestinian Arab world where such people are regarded as heroes, he didn't ask the other question: would Arabs who were raised watching videos on TV about the glories of martyrdom act differently had they been raised in suburban America?

Some people are mentally ill and violent no matter what. But the problem in the Arab world, and in the Palestinian Arab world in particular, is that the prevailing cultural mores say that terrorists are heroes. In such a society, terrorism is not an aberration - it is a lofty goal. Lankford ignores that there is an entire culture that lionizes murderers.

By conflating the two, Lankford is not contributing to the solution in the Middle East; he is exasperating the problem. The only way to solve the problem is to shame Arabs into realizing that terrorism is sickening, not laudable; that it is immoral, not heroic.

Such a change is possible. While a large part of the Muslim world used to applaud suicide terrorism, that percentage has gone down in most places over the past decade - with the notable exception of the Palestinian Arab territories!


The reason is, I believe, a combination two factors. One is that the Muslims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are seeing how the terrorists can be used in civil wars, indiscriminately killing other Muslims.

The other is that Western media, and Western morality, is slowly being consumed and assimilated more in the Arab world. Muslims, like most groups, do not want to be perceived as immoral compared to others, and it is hard for them to justify terrorism using Western language and mores that has slowly become part of even mainstream Arabic media.

Pretending that everyone is the same, as Lankford does, is a fatal mistake. We  are a product of our upbringing and our culture. The culture in Gaza and the West Bank is one that mainstreams and elevates terrorists. Lankford's logic in saying that they are just like us might fit his agenda, but it is not doing anyone any favors. In the long run, it will cause more people to be killed by the people Lankford wants to pigeonhole as being merely mentally unstable.