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Looking Beyond the Stereotype of a Suicide Bomber - 2003-05-09

The suicide bomber's attack is generally attributed to impoverishment, ignorance or madness. Not so, says Scott Atran, a member of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and at the University of Michigan.

He writes in The New York Times newspaper that study after study shows that these attackers are neither crazed, cowardly, apathetic or asocial. And poverty itself is not a breeding ground for terrorism, as some claim.

If suicide bombers are so maladjusted, how could they prove to be such effective and reliable killers asks Todd Stewart, a former US Air Force General who is now Director of the International and Homeland Security Program at Ohio State University. "When you look at the evidence, it indicates that people who are involved in this, while it is difficult to generalize and there will always be exceptions, are not necessarily motivated from desperate circumstances or in some sense psychologically imbalanced. They very often are college educated and come from middle class or even upper middle class segments of society."

General Stewart notes that the bomber who killed three bystanders in a Tel Aviv café recently was brought up in reasonably prosperous conditions in Britain and attended college. His family and friends could scarcely believe it. He had gone down a path they would never have predicted.

Last year, Alan Krueger, Professor of Economics at Princeton University, released a study comparing Hezbollah members who died in some kind of violent action to other Lebanese of the same age group. The Hezbollah members tended to be better off and more educated than the others.

So curing poverty does not necessarily eliminate terrorism, says Professor Krueger. "Terrorism is a form of a political statement, and if you think about who gets involved politically, it tends to be people who are from higher income families and people who are better educated. Those are the ones who seem most strongly involved in particular political causes. I do not think of terrorism as ordinary street crime. People who have very few opportunities tend to commit those crimes. It is more like an inappropriate violent political statement."

Professor Krueger says western emphasis on materialism tends to give a misleading picture of suicide bombers, including the ones who have done the most damage to the United States.

"You look at the biographies of the September Eleventh hijackers and it is nothing like what that stereotype would suggest. They were mostly well educated from prosperous families. So I think that we tend to view this very narrowly through western perspective which puts much weight on material well being."

Look at politics, not poverty for the root cause of much terrorism, says Brian Barber, a professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee who has spent considerable time in Palestinian areas and refugee camps.

"As conditions have worsened dramatically and systematically since the Oslo Accords, the level of desperation, frustration and resignation that the future holds no promise for Palestinians has extended to a broader population. So there are more and more youths - not just the very poor, not just the very victimized - but youths from all quarters of Palestinian society, especially in Gaza, who really feel that there is no hope. And so they are easily persuadable now that if they are to contribute to the success of their people, which is their primary goal, then one way to do that is to do a suicide bombing."

Professor Barber says it is hard for westerners to grasp the level of despair that leads to suicide bombers. It is too easy to dismiss them as totally irrational. He begs to differ.

"It is much more rational than we in the West tend to think it might be because few of us have ever experienced the type of destitution that most of these people have felt, and so these ideas never occur to us. I am completely convinced that most of what happens in that region is a function of what is happening economically and politically. As soon as there is a political and economic climate in the territories that is friendly to the basic survival and sense of hope that most everyone wants to have, as soon as that friendliness could come, the largest percentage of this type of extreme violence would stop."

Other analysts largely agree with Professor Barber that a successful peace process between Israelis and Palestinians would do much to curb suicide attacks.

Another political contribution to terrorism is cited by both US Defense Department and UN reports. They say US military interventions overseas lead to an upsurge in terrorist recruitment and suicide attacks.

But motivated as they are, suicide bombers need organization and instruction. Scott Atran writes that "it is the particular genius of al-Qaida, Hamas or Hezbollah that they are to make otherwise well adjusted people into human bombs. Intense indoctrination, often lasting 18 months or more, causes recruits to identify emotionally with their terrorist cell, viewing it as a family for whom they are as willing to die as a mother for her child or as a soldier for his buddies."

In a letter to The New York Times, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says this kind of indoctrination is the key to terrorism. He writes that "terrorists are not born in a vacuum. They are taught from birth that violence and murder are acceptable means with which to achieve their goals. Terrorism will not go away until the societies that breed terrorists reevaluate what they are teaching their children."

General Stewart says a prime need is to uproot the organizations that train terrorists. "The way to deal with it in part is to focus on those networks or systems that have been established to promote this sort of thing and to try to disconnect or make otherwise ineffective that education and training structure. That is one way to try to attack the problem at its origin. More work needs to be done in understanding the root causes and how you can interdict it at the start rather than try to defend yourself against the consequences of a motivated person who is bent on doing it in self-destruction." But General Stewart cautions that as the United States moves against terrorist groups, it still needs to burnish its image as a haven for all the people who choose not to be terrorists.

"So we need to be careful that as we work to secure our borders, we do not deny the opportunity for people around the world to come to the United States and really experience what it is like to live here and what our values are. We want to keep the bad guys out, but we want to continue to welcome people from around the world who would like to experience America."

General Stewart says there is no use turning people with an incomplete understanding of the United States into suicide bombers. Let's make sure they can come here and see us as we are.