Thursday, 19 November 2015

Soldiers and Suicide Bombers

My quote from last night was from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series:

"The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men's eyes."

"And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds; there places are made in the world where darkness gathers, places given over wholly to the Ones whom we call Nameless, the ancient and holy Powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness."

There is something in that quote which I think speaks of the atrocities committed in Paris by the Islamic State, something which speaks of the madness to which people become debased in such a way that they can go on a rampage of destruction, and then destroy themselves as well.

Normally, human beings are quite good at what Simon-Baron Cohen calls a “theory of mind”. That is to say, they can put themselves inside other people’s heads, and even if they don’t agree with them, manage to understand something of what drives that person to behave and believe the way they do.

The BBC reported on a Muslim man who was at one of the restaurants targeted, and who grabbed two young girls and pulled them down out of harms way when the shooting began. He was interviewed, and there was clear incomprehension as he asked who could do such a thing, and said they were monsters. Notice that it was a Muslim who found this incomprehensible.

That's worth noting, as the Vicar of Gouray, Gavin Ashenden, is again portraying Islam as the villain of the piece, citing verses from the Koran to support the use of violence - and conveniently neglecting to mention the verses supporting violence in his own Bible. For someone supporting a religion of peace, it is surprising how much he wants to foster fear and distrust.

So how can we understand the mentality of the suicide bomber? In his article, “The Psychology of the Suicide Bomber”, Irum Sarfaraz notes that:

“It is easy to put a religious label on these individuals but religion has little to do with it or their motives for taking their own lives. If religion has any role in the entire chemistry, it is only to have been used as the perfect blackmailing element to distort the image of right from wrong in the psyche of the bomber.”

And he notes that the social psychologist Albert Bandura suggests that “suicide bombers are not abnormal individuals or psychopaths who lack morality not are they hungry to spill the blood of innocent people indiscriminately. Rather on the contrary they are very normal people who under certain circumstances and inducements are capable of selectively extricating their moral code to engage in extreme inhumane conduct.”

Bandura writes, “Just as soldiers can go to battle to fight and kill for their country, terrorists can engage in violence to promote a cause. To be sure, soldiers must be trained to overcome their inhibitions to kill others, but this behavior modification is not seen as immoral by most societies' indeed, it is rewarded with medals, venerated in public ceremonies and idealized as heroic sacrifices when soldiers are killed in actions. Similarly, terrorists can frame their violent deeds as moral acts in the service of their people, country or God”

Sarfaraz comments that

“In exploring the moral mental stand of suicide bombers one would find it to be very similar to that of soldiers. Just like the act of killing by soldiers is morally acceptable, similarly the killing by suicide bombers, themselves and others, is also acceptable. Similarly just as dead soldiers are revered by their counterparts, dead suicide bombers are revered by the other people of his tribe as well.”

So the same mechanisms by which soldiers can repress inhibitions to kill are at work with the suicide bombers. It is a training in what Bandura calls “moral disengagement”.

As Michelle Maiese notes, in an article on “Suicide Bombers”

“Casualties are then seen as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of fighting for one's just cause. It is not that they are bloodthirsty or that they enjoy killing civilians, but rather that they believe these missions are the only way to fight for their cause. Although the realization that terrorists view themselves as soldiers engaged in a just war does not legitimize their cause or methods, it does provide some insight into their psychology and motivation. It suggests that their psychology is similar to that displayed by combatants in other conflicts.”

Suicide bombing itself seems to be a fairly modern practice. Meytal Grimland, Alan Apter, and Ad Kerkho in their study on “The Phenomenon of Suicide Bombing” note that:

“While terrorism is not a new phenomenon and has always carried a high risk for its perpetrators, what is new is the desire of certain individuals to kill others while killing themselves”

They comment that: “The most striking epidemiological feature of suicide bombing is its almost epidemic-like increase over the last two decades, and especially, the last 5 years”

And the military nature of their training comes up again. They note that “the typical Palestinian suicide terrorist is religious, normal, polite, and serious. They are motivated mainly by the effectiveness of suicide bombing as a military strategy, nationalistic pride, need to revenge national and personal humiliation, and hatred of Israel and America”

It is notable that recruiters in fact, will not select candidates they deem to have suicidal tendencies. They look for people who have a good degree of mental stability that helps them to endure pressure to recruit.

Islam itself is opposed to the idea of suicide: “Studies of Muslim countries report even lower rates of suicide than for Israeli Jews, except for a substantial increase recently among Israeli Arabs. The Shi’ite survival code (Taqiyya) adheres strongly to the preservation of life, even allowing followers to pose as Sunni to save themselves (Merari, 1998). Along with the low suicide rate in Arabic Islamic countries, Abdel-Khalek (2004) cites research indicating higher means than Western samples on measures of psychological disorder, such as depression, which usually serve as predictors of suicide”

This is because the belief system of Islam is like tha of Christianity, is opposed to suicide, regarding suicide as fundamentally wrong – “a true Muslim believes that he is the servant of Allah, the creator and the provider who determines the life span of his creatures; a Muslim is not free to end his life when ever he wants, and by killing oneself or another is doomed to great punishment.”

But there is an idea of a warrior-martyr in Islam. The concept of the shahid or Martyr is, by Islamic definition, a warrior killed by the enemy in battle in the name of Allah. This again fits with the psychological profile of the suicide bomber as following a military code of practice.

That this is a trained behaviour emerges when we look at how people become suicide bombers. They undergo a period of what might be called indoctrination, although it should be noted that the same methodology also could be applied to military training of many kinds:

“Indoctrination may be long or short term. The main tool in long-term indoctrination is education – by schools, the media, parents, and friends. The purpose of this process is to convince the person of the importance of the cause and of the righteousness of the means necessary for its implementation.”
And that indoctrination or training is powerful.

“Merari (2002) views the psychological process of preparation as a ‘production line,’ where you enter at one end and come out as a complete suicide bomber at the other. The line is dotted with ‘crossroads’ or social contracts that are, in effect, points of no return, because breaking them will heap shame and dishonor on the person and his family. In this manner, beyond the personal commitment to the cause, the terrorist develops a social commitment to stick to the mission to the end despite hesitations and second thoughts.”

Even in normal military training, there is this element of indoctrination. As a former US soldier writes:

"Basic training prepares you to follow orders because when the shit hits the fan on the battle field you have to act without thinking in order to keep yourself and your fellow soldiers alive!."

Imagine that process to be even more intense, and you find the military precision of the suicide bomber. They are trained to kill and then kill themselves. The suicide bombers not only see themselves as soldiers, they have been trained as soldiers to kill, and to destroy themselves rather than be taken prisoner. 

It is here that we can begin to understand how people turn into monsters.

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