Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO


“…deeply rooted human propensity to follow a leader’s orders…”



Manufacturing terror: Throughout history, young people looking for a cause have become potent weapons

Margaret Munro

National Post

7 March 2003

National Post

(c) National Post 2003. All Rights Reserved.Suicide bombers are not impoverished psychopaths, but seemingly well-adjusted, educated young people who have been manipulated by charismatic leaders, according to a U.S. anthropologist.

The bombers see themselves as committed soldiers, much like the kamikaze pilots in the Second World War, says Professor Scott Atran of the University of Michigan.

“They have no appreciable psychopathology and are as educated and economically well-off as surrounding populations,” he writes in today’s issue of the journal Science.

If George W. Bush, the U.S. President, were to try to recruit people for suicide missions against Osama bin Laden, he too would probably “get plenty of volunteers,” Atran told the National Post.

Willingness to die for a cause, he says, is deeply rooted in human nature. It is tied to powerful emotions that override rational thought.

Attempts to understand what makes someone willing to die for a cause began in earnest in North America on Sept. 11, 2001, after 19 young men killed almost 3,000 people and themselves in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. President Bush called the hijackers evil cowards. Others described them as homicidal lunatics. Still others blamed desperation born of poverty and ignorance.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien has often mused that poverty breeds terrorism, but the Science report says poverty is not a big factor in the lives of most suicide bombers.

Atran says the evidence — based on historical cases of suicide terrorism and information that has been gathered on the “human bombs” now blowing themselves up — shows the bombers are created when impressionable young people are manipulated emotionally.

“He’s right. Suicide attackers are manufactured, they are not born,” says John Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto based think-tank that studies terrorism and political extremism.

Atran’s paper in Science contradicts the popular notion of what drives suicide bombers.

“They don’t act from rational self-interest, opting for paradise out of despair because they feel there is nothing much to lose in this world,” says Atran. “Nor are they sacrificing themselves for what they see as the good of their group, even though they are fiercely loyal to their ‘families’ ” — cells of fellow terrorists who take on the role of kin.

Rather, he says, religious and political leaders are taking advantage of a deeply rooted human propensity to follow a leader’s orders. The same psychological phenomenon explains why ordinary Germans committed such horrific crimes against the Jews and why Japan’s kamikaze pilots willingly flew fuel-laden planes into American warships during the Second World War.

Today’s suicide terrorists do not exhibit suicidal symptoms, nor are they social misfits. “None was uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded or depressed. …They all seemed to be entirely normal members of their [real] families,” Atran notes in his Science paper.

His evidence includes studies of Palestinian bombers and their families and a Singapore Parliamentary report, released in January, that paints a similar picture of 31 captured operatives from Jemaah Islamiyah and other al-Qaeda allies in Southeast Asia: “All 31 had received secular education…. Like many of their counterparts in militant Islamic organizations in the region, they held normal, respectable jobs…. As a group, most of the detainees regarded religion as their most important personal value. … secrecy over the true knowledge of jihad helped create a sense of sharing and empowerment vis-a-vis others.”

Suicide attacks, usually chosen as a weapon of terror by weaker parties, have a long history.

They were used by the Jewish sect of Zealots in Roman-occupied Judea and by Islamic assassins during the early Christian crusades.

Japan’s kamikaze pilots were, like many of today’s bombers, young and fairly well-educated. When collectively asked to volunteer for a special attack, “transcending life and death,” in the battle of the Philippines in 1944, Atran says all the pilots stepped forward, despite assurances refusal would carry no shame or punishment. In the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, about 2,000 kamikaze pilots rammed fully fuelled fighter planes into more than 300 ships, killing 5,000 Americans in the most costly naval battle in U.S. history.

While the Japanese indoctrination was carried out over years, modern terrorists groups often work on a much shorter timeline. One of the hijackers involved in the World Trade Center attack is believed to have been with a terrorist organization for only one year.

“There is no book out there on how to make a suicide attacker,” says Thompson, “but if you know something about human psychology and about history and have a chance to work on people, you can start manufacturing them.”

The most malleable targets for terrorist recruiters are young people “full of youthful passion and intensity, and looking for something bigger and something noble,” he says.

In the case of the al-Qaeda terrorists, religion was also an important motivating factor. There is, of course, nothing new about martyrdom. It is the ultimate way to display devotion, says Atran, author of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2002), which explores the phenomenon.

For leaders such as Osama bin Laden, human bombs serve a purpose far more important than their individual missions. Not only do they spread terror, they also help focus and build public support for terrorist organizations.

“Shortly after 9/11, an intelligence survey of educated Saudis (ages 25 to 41) concluded that 95% supported al-Qaeda,” says Atran. “After a Jerusalem supermarket bombing by an 18-year-old Palestinian female [in March 2002], a Saudi telethon raised more than $100-million for the Al-Quds Intifada.”

Atran fears the U.S. war on terror may actually make things worse by building support and sympathy for the “martyr-making web.” He believes the best way to diffuse suicide terrorism is to make young people less receptive to terrorist groups in the first place — a tall order, he concedes, but he says it deserves more attention and study.

Atran also says the United States and its allies should work on building support among Arab moderates. They could start by “addressing grievances and reducing feelings of humiliation, especially in Palestine,” he says.

Thompson disagrees, saying the way to stop suicide terrorism is to stop “the preachers and teachers” who are spreading the Islamic fundamentalist message — a message that makes young, impressionable minds more receptive to terrorist recruiters.

July 11, 2007 - Posted by | behaviour

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