March 06, 2003

Suicide terrorism: U-M author explains what defenses will and won't work and why

ANN ARBOR, Mich—The first line of defense against suicide terrorism should be to prevent people from becoming terrorists—rather than to protect targets from being attacked, according to a University of Michigan researcher whose analysis appears in the current (March 7) issue of Science.

"Suicide terrorists are not crazed cowards who thrive in poverty and ignorance. In fact, most 'human bombs' have no appreciable psychopathology and are at least as educated and economically well-off as surrounding populations," said Scott Atran, an anthropologist and psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world's largest academic survey and research organization.

"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," said Atran, who is also affiliated with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "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 fictive kin. Instead, they are being deliberately manipulated by religious and political elites, who are pulling strings attached to deeply rooted, culturally universal human propensities to see the world in religious terms. Even secular groups that sponsor suicide terrorism draw deeply on these propensities.

"In much the same way," he said, "fast food companies and purveyors of pornography capitalize on innate human inclinations toward sweet, fatty foods and sex, tricking people into doing things that have no personal advantage."

In the Science article and in his recent book, "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion," (Oxford University Press, 2002), Atran maintains that religion—defined as a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents— is not an evolutionary adaptation at all, as many neo-Darwinists argue, but an evolutionary by-product of early man's ancient emotional and cognitive terrain.

"From an evolutionary point of view, the reasons religion should not exist are patent," Atran said. "It is materially, emotionally and cognitively costly. As Bill Gates said, 'There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.' Yet it is universal across human history and cultures. The question is why, and what accounts for the properties and practices common to all religions?"

One of these common practices, he notes, is a sacrificial display of costly commitment to supernatural agents that appears irrational but actually helps people deal with inescapable catastrophes in life for which there are otherwise no factual or logical solutions possible. Martyrdom (including suicide terrorism) is an extreme form of religious practice, the ultimate way to display devotion. "Evolution has made our emotions extremely powerful," said Atran. "With music, chanting and swaying in prayer and other forms of communion, religion evokes and coordinates that power, enabling people to collectively face vulnerability, deception, loneliness, injustice and even death."

Despite the deep roots of suicide terrorism in religious sentiments, which are deliberately parasitized and manipulated by political and religious elites, the first line of defense must be to reduce the receptivity of potential recruits who are mostly ordinary people, Atran said. The most effective ways to do this are not to try to educate or elevate the economic conditions of the populations from which suicide terrorists often spring, or to bombard them with self-serving information, he said. Instead, the U.S. and its allies should try to empower moderates from within the community and strengthen interactions between members of different religious and political groups, he said.

"Another strategy is to change our own behavior by addressing grievances and reducing feelings of humiliation, especially in Palestine, where media images of daily violence have made it the global focus of Moslem attention," Atran said.

Atran considers our current homeland security strategy of protecting targets as a last line of defense, since it is probably the most expensive to implement and the easiest to breach because of the abundance of vulnerable targets and would-be attackers.

"In the long run, our society can ill afford to ignore either the consequences of its own actions or the causes behind the actions of others. The cost of such ignorance is terrible to contemplate," he said.

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive.

Contact: Diane Swanbrow
Phone: (734) 647-9069


Home | Releases | Experts | News Staff | Broadcast | In the News
Images | Publications | Site map

Copyright 2002 The Regents of the University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109 USA 1-734-764-1817