Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Suicide Bombers: the Ultimate Sacrifice


By reframing suicide, insurgents circumvent taboo.

       Often resistance behavior does not make sense, since it brings with a reaction that is more powerful than the resistance act. If we look at how members of the resistance relabel their actions it makes more sense.
       Suicide bombers are one such example. I made the mistake of using the term “suicide bombers” with a group of Afghani doctors and school administers and was strongly confronted on my “misuse” of the word.
       Islam, like Christianity, does not condone suicide. Members of both religions generally view suicide as selfish and against religious teachings. However, insurgents have reframed the act as a sacrifice for their people or as a service to Allah in the war against infidels. This follows a basic psychological principle that the meaning we attach to any event depends on the words used to evaluate it.
       When working with clients, therapists often reframe something that the client is doing to put a more positive spin on it. For example, the client is unhappy because he keeps telling himself he "needs" to or "must" do something and feels guilty or depressed when he doesn’t do it. The therapist reframes it for the client as you "want to" or "would like to" do something, which takes some pressure off.
       Why use suicide bombers? Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Institute has called suicide bombers the ultimate smart bomb. As such, they are of great value to leaders as pawns in the struggle against the United States. But to use them, the leader has to create a willingness to die, and to do this he must convince them of the importance of the sacrifice of their lives. This is done by reframing the meaning of what they are doing by relabeling it, which causes people to have a different emotional reaction to what they are doing.
       This is best done by starting with someone who is already infected with the idea that killing oneself for a larger ideal can be a meaningful act. People usually do not spontaneously think of sacrifice bombings. Instead, the behavior has to be introduced by a few innovators, have a strong impact and receive a great deal of publicity, followed by a tipping point where suicides become frequent acts.
       Historically there are a number of models, for example, the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II who crashed their airplanes into U.S. ships and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, who have committed the most suicide attacks of any group. Note that these models are not Muslim; however, at the moment suicide bombers in the headlines are Palestinian, Chechen, Iraqi, Afghanistan, and Pakistani.

A suicide bomber in Peshawar crashed his car into a military vehicle killing four.
 (Wikimedia Commons)

       For us to understand what is happening in these countries we need to see how insurgents have reframed what they are doing.
       Recruits join the insurgents for a combination of reasons: anger, revenge, hopelessness, to be significant to a group, for the money their family will receive on their death, to make a contribution to their group’s freedom. We need to keep in mind that these are not individually motivated attacks but occur in the context of social political issues. The individual belongs to a group that needs - would like - someone to become a smart bomb.
       What lowers a person’s strong will to live? What arguments can be used to break the religious restrictions against suicide? The way it is framed makes a big difference.

● We label suicide as an act against religious principles; they label the sacrifice of their life as part of a holy jihad for which they will be honored in heaven.

● We label ourselves as bringing democracy to the region; they label us as invaders destroying their country to control oil supplies.

● We label ourselves as Christians wanting to improve other people’s lives; they label us as infidels who want to destroy their religion.

● We label their attacks as psychotic; they label their attacks as a form of religion-supported retaliation for crimes committed against them.

       On this last point, an example of the way attacks on Americans are framed is this quote from one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks: "God said to assault whoever assaults you, in a like manner. … In killing Americans who are ordinarily off limits, Muslims may not exceed 4 million noncombatants or render more than 10 million of them homeless. We should avoid this, to make sure the penalty is no more than reciprocal. God knows what is best."
       Fortunately, these ways of labeling what is happening do not apply to the majority of Muslims, but as is obvious from the news, the numbers who do believe are large enough that we are going to continue to have a major problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Bomber vest (Wikimedia Commons)

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