Suicide terrorism: U-M author explains what defenses will and
won't work and why
ANN ARBOR, MichThe first line of defense
against suicide terrorism should be to prevent people from becoming
terroristsrather 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 religiondefined
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
"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 www.isr.umich.edu
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