Writing in the Boston Globe, Paul Kix summarizes compelling research that suggests that many suicide terrorists may be motivated – or demotivated, as the case may be – by depression and suicidal impulses, rather than Islamic ideology.
At the forefront is the University of Alabama’s Adam Lankford, who recently published an analysis of suicide terrorism in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior. Lankford cites Israeli scholars who interviewed would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. These scholars found that 40 percent of the terrorists showed suicidal tendencies; 13 percent had made previous suicide attempts, unrelated to terrorism. Lankford finds Palestinian and Chechen terrorists who are financially insolvent, recently divorced, or in debilitating health in the months prior to their attacks. A 9/11 hijacker, in his final note to his wife, describing how ashamed he is to have never lived up to her expectations. Terrorist recruiters admitting they look for the “sad guys” for martyrdom.
Kix points out that depressed and suicidal young men can feel that they would be giving their lives tremendous significance if they die as a “martyr"; at the same time Islam forbids suicide, so killing themselves in an act of terrorism is a way to kill themselves without technically, in their minds, committing suicide.
While depressed people exist in almost any society, and depression has become a virtual epidemic in Western societies, some characteristics of the Muslim world may predispose to depression, perhaps the main one among them being polygamy. In a polygamous world, many young men will be permanently shut out of the institution that for the vast majority of people gives their lives its main source of meaning: marriage and family. As London School of Economics professor Satoshi Kanazawa has noted, virtually all Muslim suicide bombers have been young and unmarried:
Most importantly, all studies of suicide bombers indicate that they are significantly younger than not only the Muslim population in general but also other (non-suicidal) members of their own extreme political organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, and nearly all suicide bombers are single (Atran, 2003; Berrebi, 2003). Because all primate societies, including humans, are gerontocratic, age is the greatest predictor of men’s social status, and we would therefore expect the youngest men to have the lowest status and thus the dimmest prospect for reproductive success in any organization.
Being young and unmarried means, as Kanazawa points out, that the social status of suicide bombers is lower, and this is also a factor in depression. Aside from the issue of depression, young, single men are disproportionately likely to be the perpetrators of violent crime.
Fifty-three percent of the would-be bombers showed “depressive tendencies” — melancholy, low energy, tearfulness, the study found — whereas 21 percent of the organizers exhibited the same. Furthermore, 40 percent of the would-be suicide bombers expressed suicidal tendencies; one talked openly of slitting his wrists after his father died. But the study found that none of the terrorist organizers were suicidal.
“[N]one of the terrorist organizers were suicidal”: it's also a safe bet that few of the terrorist organizers were single either. A polygamous society provides abundant numbers of young men, predisposed to violence because of family and sexual deprivation, who can be used to further the interests of the powerful.
What about Islam? As Kanazawa notes, other polygamous societies don't produce suicide bombers; for instance, Swaziland has the highest incidence of polygamy in the world. While Islam's culture of martyrdom, as well as the promise of endless sexual delight in the world to come surely enter into it, it's only part of the equation. If it were the whole of it, as many neoconservatives would have us believe, we would see more married, older, and/or female suicide bombers. After all, the tenets of Islam apply to them too. Yet it appears that it is disproportionately the young, the male, the unmarried – and, related to all these factors, the depressed – who find the culture of martyrdom so compelling that they actually put it into practice.