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Suicide Bombers With PhDs

In 2002, Tony Blair’s wife caused controversy by expressing some sympathy for the ‘plight’ of Palestinian suicide bombers, just hours after a bus bomb in Jerusalem killed 19 and injured over 40. (Whatever happened to suicide attacks in Israel, anyway? It’s like someone built a wall around the country.) “As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up,” Cherie Blair said, “you are never going to make progress.”

Despite the fury at her remarks, she was doing no more than expressing the sort of view that is common in polite society in this country. Even among those genuinely and utterly opposed to the use of violence as a tactic in the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood, there is a widespread view that suicide bombing is the inevitable last resort of the poor, the dispossessed, and the hopeless. Though no moderate himself, London mayor Ken Livingstone echoed the thoughts of many when he said in July 2005 that while Israel has fighter jets and planes, Palestinians “only have their bodies” and “no other way to fight back” – this from a man whose city had just suffered its first suicide bombing three weeks previously. 

The idea that Palestinians do not have access to weapons is not one that need detain us long. But the belief that terrorism generally, and suicide bombing specifically, grow almost organically out of the nexus of political frustration and – crucially – economic deprivation, has become a commonplace, to the extent that even George Bush now enlists the war on terror as justification for signing up to ambitious foreign aid and poverty relief programs. Raise educational standards and give young people opportunities, the argument goes, and fewer of them will be tempted into the arms of the jihadists.

Well, maybe. But this conventional wisdom is challenged by a new book, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, by Princeton's Alan Krueger. In this month's American magazine Krueger, er, explodes the myth of suicide bomber as undereducated and materially deprived victim of circumstances. On the contrary:

The available evidence is nearly unanimous in rejecting either material deprivation or inadequate educa­tion as important causes of support for terrorism or participation in terrorist activities. Such explana­tions have been embraced almost entirely on faith, not scientific evidence.

Krueger’s thesis is based on a wide variety of sources. Prior to writing this book, he had studied hate crimes in the Germany of the 1990s and found no link between socioeconomic background and the incidence of violent attacks against foreigners. Drawing on this experience, Krueger turned first to global opinion surveys on support for terrorism, and then to those who actually participated in it – Palestinian suicide bombers and Hezbollah militants, and even members of Al-Qaeda.

In all cases, the research pointed the same way. Suicide bombers are far more likely to be from relatively well-to-do backgrounds than the average citizen, more likely to have a high school education, or even college educated. There’s a lot more in Krueger’s article that repays further reading but, as an economist, his thesis is clear; in the fight against terrorism, it is pointless to focus on the supply side. There will always be those who are willing to die for a cause, whether it’s because of nationalism, fanaticism or their personal circumstances. 

If we address one motivation and thus reduce one source on the supply side, there remain other motivations that will incite other people to terror.

That suggests to me that it makes sense to focus on the demand side, such as by degrading terrorist organizations’ financial and technical capabili­ties, and by vigorously protecting and promoting peaceful means of protest, so there is less demand for pursuing grievances through violent means. Policies intended to dampen the flow of people willing to join terrorist organizations, by contrast, strike me as less likely to succeed.

Perhaps it’s the phraseology that tempts so many people to think of the suicide bomber as dispossessed victim, using his own body as a last resort when all else has failed. The idea of honourable suicide, while it certainly exists in Western culture, has never been particularly deeply embedded in our psyche.

Catastrophic professional failures might in times past have been 'resolved' with a pearl-handled revolver in a locked room; nowadays such people won’t even resign without being dragged kicking and screaming towards the exit.  In the modern material world, suicide is, almost by definition, an act of hopelessness, carried out by those who are deeply miserable with their lives. We feel an instinctive sympathy for the suicide; horror at the forces that must have driven them to an act of such shuddering finality. As Karol Sheinin correctly points out elsewhere on these pages, when we look at the plight of ordinary Gazans, it is a hard-hearted observer indeed who does not feel the most profound despair and sympathy for their wretched plight. The idea that suicide can be born not of hopelessness and deprivation but of fanaticism and hatred is such an alien one to our way of thinking that we clutch at familiar tropes instead.

I think the time for such lazy thinking is past. I don’t imagine that the phrase “suicide bomber” began life as a euphemism, but it certainly reads as one nowadays. Far better, I think, Christopher Hitchens’ favoured formulation, “suicide murderers”. The suicide may be central to their ideology, but it’s the murder that’s the principal sin in mine. Sure, it’s a heavily loaded term, but if we can’t use pointed language to describe people willing to immolate themselves and innocent civilians in the name of religion, then we all have bigger problems anyway.

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