View Full Version : Altruism and the Suicide Bomber

11th September 2003, 08:57 PM
This might belong under “Science, Mathematic, Medicine, and Technology”, but since it is directly relevant to events in recent History, I decided to post it here.

The latest issue of Discover Magazine includes an interview with Scott Atran, an anthropologist who’s recent work has focused on suicide terrorism. The article does not go as in depth on the subject I would have liked, but it does bring up some interesting points.

The idea of strapping a bomb to your self and exploding it on a bus might seem rather insane, but according to Atran and others who have researched the subject, this is not the case. Researchers who have interviewed the families of suicide bombers and actual suicide bombers who either failed to detonate their bombs or survived the blast, have determined that suicide bombers are no crazier than the average man on the street. In terms of income and education, they tend to be above average. A third of Palestinians live in poverty, but only 13% of Palestinian suicide bomber are from impoverished backgrounds. Moreover, while only 15% of Palestinians have education beyond high school, 57% of suicide bombers do. So if suicide bombers are neither desperately poor, vastly ignorant, nor crazy, what drives them to do what they do?

According to Atran, it is essentially a form of kin altruism. I’ll be the first to admit the notion of blowing up a bus full children as an altruistic act is pretty counter-intuitive, but there is logic behind the idea. Altruism - a willingness to risk or sacrifice for others – is not an uncommon trait in humans, particularly if those others are relatives. A mother who sacrifices her life for her child may, from her perspective, be behaving selflessly. But from a evolutionary point of view, she is just acting to insure the survival of her genetic inheritance. A warrior who sacrifices his life to protect his village is also, in a less direct way, acting to protect his genetic inheritance since many of the people in the village are likely related to him. So this form of altruism is probably an inherent human trait. Terrorist organizations use this tendency to their advantage.

Scott Atran as quoted in the article:

What these terrorist cells do is very similar to what our military, or any military does. They form small groups of intimately involved “brothers” who literally sacrifice themselves for one another, the way a mother would for her child. They do it by manipulating universal, heartfelt human sentiments that I think are probably innate and part of biological evolution. In the case of something like Al Qaeda, you’ve got these people in groups of three to eight people for 18 months, isolated from their families, getting this intense and deep ego-stroking propaganda. You do that to anyone and you’ll get them to do what you want.

In the article, Mr. Atran also makes some recommendations on dealing with the problem. He thinks attempts to educate or reduce poverty in populations where suicide terrorism is common is unlikely to have any effect since the terrorist themselves tend to be neither uneducated nor impoverished. He thinks that it is generally useful to hunt down and arrest or kill the cell leaders. But he also thinks you ultimately must address their grievances.

Alan Kruger found that lack of civil liberties is a predictor of where you’ll find suicide terrorism. When you don’t give these people any political space to express themselves, they become radicalized.

11th September 2003, 09:56 PM
We didn't evolve with bombs. It's too quick and easy. Ask those same bombers to be mauled to death by a bear in the name of Allah, and I bet they wouldn't have the nuts to do it.

11th September 2003, 10:21 PM
I'd find the "altruism" theory more convincing if the suicide bombers could be demonstrated to be atheists who had no belief in an existence beyond this one and no expectation of any post-mortem "reward".

Similarly, the theory doesn't really address the equally intangible issues of "glory" and "honour" as motivating factors.