The Suicide Solution

Mohammad Sidique Khan's voice-from-the-grave video got me thinking the other day. Most Americans were focused on the disaster in New Orleans, that city betrayed by the cupidity of shortsighted politicians, flooded with pestilence, plagued by chaos. Al-Jazeera's broadcast on Thursday of the Yorkshire-accented musings of this Muslim fanatic who blew himself up in the London Underground two months ago in the attack that killed 52 innocents, seemed weirdly irrelevant given the scope of the national tragedy that now faces the United States.

Yet the next such cataclysm could easily be the work of men like Khan, who are willing to kill themselves to slaughter the maximum number of their enemies--meaning all of us in the American and British democracies. "I and thousands like me are forsaking everything for what we believe," said Khan.

"Thousands." Suicide attacks of one sort or another have been with us for a long time. But never, apart from Japan's kamikazes during World War II, in such industrial quantities. What changed? And how can we reverse the trend?

Back when terrorism was still a fairly small boutique business, less than a decade ago, car bombs were easy to come by, but the folks to drive them were not. There has never been any great technical challenge to rigging up a family sedan or a rented truck with homemade explosives. Leftist radicals blew up a research center at the University of Wisconsin that way in 1970. The first Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, Timothy McVeigh's destruction of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the bombing of a U.S. housing compound called Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 used the same techniques. The big problem was where to put the vehicle for maximum impact, and how--or rather who--to take it there. "Anyone can prepare a car," I was told by an operative from Lebanon who'd put together a few bombs himself, "but not anyone can prepare a driver to go into places where you can't easily go."

Getting a terrorist to carry a high-explosive bomb on what he or she knew would be a suicide mission was considered the most difficult challenge of all. After the end of Japan's kamikaze attacks during World War II (in which a stunning 3,843 pilots gave their lives to damage or sink at least 375 U.S. naval vessels, killing 2,300 American servicemen and wounding another 36,400), such missions seemed desperate, aberrant--and ultimately futile. For more than 35 years, as Robert A. Pape notes in his recently-published book "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism" (Random House), no group mounted another campaign of suicide bombings anywhere in the world.

Now, as we know, the practice is widespread and growing. Using commercial airliners as bombs, modern Muslim "kamikazes" hit the United States in 2001. From Bali to Mombasa, Tel Aviv to Colombo, Moscow to Casablanca and London--with the explosives hidden in cars, in boats, in backpacks, in vests and in belts--suicide attacks have been used to devastating effect. What the U.S. military calls "vehicle borne improvised explosive devices," suicide bombs, go off many times a week in Iraq, and sometimes several times a day.

The most useful way to understand how terrorism became so grimly commonplace may be to think of this slaughter as a pathology, like a contagious disease that began with small outbreaks here and there, and has developed into an epidemic. Suicide as such--without the bombing or the terrorism--has been studied as a pathology by social scientists at least since the 19th-century work of Émile Durkheim, which focused on the societal factors likely to increase the risk that people will kill themselves. And while suicidal terrorism may be distinctive, when you demystify it and put aside the Bush administration's misleading obsession with a "murderous ideology" in the "Global War on Terror," the similarities with other forms of suicide are instructive.

In the 1980s, for instance, the suicide rates among young people in several European countries rose dramatically. By the early 1990s, studies showed that in several countries more young Europeans were taking their own lives than were dying on the highways. Dutch researcher René Diekstra, then at the University of Leiden, identified the break-up of extended families and the increasing rootlessness of European life as forces behind these trends. Based on a comparative study of suicide in 20 countries over two decades, he determined in the early 1990s that divorce rates, unemployment, the rising number of working mothers, the declining importance of religion, the diminished number of children, all helped to predict the trends in suicide rates.

Today, it's worth noting, few societies are undergoing such rapid and wrenching transformations as those of the Muslim world, yet conventional suicides are rare because Muslim religious and cultural prohibitions against taking your own life are so strong. There is nothing innately self destructive in the Muslim faith, nor, for that matter among non-Muslim Tamils in Sri Lanka, the other epicenter of suicide terrorism.

In "Dying to Win," Pape concludes that "suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation." Whether the people blowing themselves up are Palestinians, Chechens, Kashmiris, Tamil Tigers, or for that matter Japanese kamikazes, they are part of nationalist struggles, he says, and "they see themselves as sacrificing their lives for the nation's good" in actions that Durkheim called "altruistic suicide." Pape is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and he holds on to this essentially political explanation even when it has to be stretched a bit. Did the problem of occupation loom large in the lives of the young British-raised Pakistanis and East Africans who attacked public transport in London last July? Where did occupation figure in the minds of the highly educated men from Egypt, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia who carried out the 9/11 attacks against the United States? For that matter, why are so many foreign fighters in Iraq willing to blow themselves to end the occupation of someone else's country? Al Qaeda propaganda tells them that the ummah, the global nation of all Muslims, is under attack. "I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters," said Mohammad Sidique Khan in his video testament. But that perception is not new--and suicide bombings on this scale are.

No, there's something more: the contagion. History is full of suicide outbreaks where first a few, then many people kill themselves. The United States has seen these plagues hit Indian reservations, prisons, religious sects and, for that matter, high schools. Worry about suicide outbreaks was partly what drove criticism of heavy-metal music in the 1980s and 1990s, when Judas Priest allegedly laced a song with subliminal messages that made one young man kill himself and another blow off a large part of his face in a failed suicide. The affably profane Ozzy Osbourne supposedly inspired two young people to take their own lives in the 1990s with his song "Suicide Solution." ("Where to hide, suicide is the only way out.")

The courts eventually cleared these aging headbangers of responsibility, but parents and educators were right to be concerned. The power of precedent is central to suicide outbreaks. When a German TV network aired a dramatic movie called "Death of a Student" in the 1980s, about a young man who threw himself under a train, suicides among Germans aged 15 to 19 jumped 175 per cent. When the program was run a second time a few months later, over considerable protest, the same thing happened.

The savagely cynical leaders of Hizbullah, the Tamil Tigers, Hamas, Al Qaeda and other groups have worked to spread the plague of suicidal terror by denying the taboos against self-destruction while romanticizing the young men and women willing to blow themselves away. Hence the video testaments like Khan's.

"Once a specific form of suicide takes place, it becomes part of the thinking and, if you will, the repertoire of people who can identify with that person who killed himself," says the Dutch researcher René Diekstra, now at Holland's Roosevelt Academy. "We know that what we call 'suicide contagion' is particularly prevalent in the late teens and early adult age. There is a search for identity, and for heroism."

These are exactly the themes the suicide organizers exploit. They say suicide is no longer suicide, it is martyrdom. Among people who see themselves fighting a hopeless battle against occupation, "within their own in-group there's a kind of veneration that contributes to the contagion effect," says Diekstra. And Pape goes further: "Once social disapproval for suicide weakens," he told me on the phone the other day, "then you see suicide contagions occur. What happens in suicide terrorism is that not only disapproval wanes, but approval grows. The underlying factor that supplies it is the political goal: to expel the foreign occupation forces." If you look at the history of suicide bombing, "in hindsight we could ask why did it spread so slowly," says Pape.

Ironically, the first major source of the suicide disease was the Iraqi Shiite Dawa Party, which now plays a vital role--terrorists turned freedom fighters--in the U.S.-backed Baghdad government. Dawa leader Ibrahim Jaafari is Iraq's prime minister. But back in the 1980s, his fellow party members attacked anyone who supported Saddam Hussein, anywhere they could. They saw Saddam's secular Baath Party as an alien force occupying sacred Shiite land. And on Dec.17, 1981, in the first massive suicide attack since World War II, a Dawa bomber blew up Iraq's embassy in Beirut, killing 30 people. In 1983, at a time when Washington and Paris and Kuwait were big Saddam supporters, the Dawa blew up the American and French embassies in Kuwait City, killing six people and wounding 80. The Dawa's close allies in Hizbullah soon started using suicide attacks against the Israelis, Americans and French in Lebanon. In October 1983 Hizbullah blew up the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen.

In 1990 the mostly Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began a series of devastating suicide attacks against their Sri Lankan and Indian enemies. In 1994, Palestinians in the Israeli occupied West Bank and Gaza launched their first suicide campaign against Israel. By the late 1990s, the growth of satellite television throughout the developing world--and its occupied lands--spread the suicide mystique far beyond the confines of the original conflicts. More surely than any lyrics by Judas Priest or Ozzy Osbourne, the message hammered home again and again on Al-Jazeera and other stations told young people that "martyrdom operations" were a surefire path to glory. In the last five years, suicide terrorism has come to seem at once heroic and banal, with all the evil that implies.

To keep the contagion from spreading further, and eventually roll it back, requires some radical realism about the nature of the threat. Foreign combat troops alone can't do the job, and often compound the problem. They are the living, breathing, shooting symbols of occupation. Over the long run, Diekstra argues, Muslim societies will have to change. Islam will have to reaffirm its traditional values to resist the romance of martyrdom that more and more young people find attractive. New role models for young Muslims will have to be found, publicized, and revered. But the first step in any such process, as Pape argues, is to end foreign occupations wherever possible: let the Iraqis build the Iraqi Army, while the United States returns to a policy that emphasizes the "offshore balancing" of power in the region, relying on our enormous economic, naval and air power, as well as skillful diplomacy.

I'm not convinced this is possible, but it makes more sense than what we're doing now. Above all, says Pape, we have to avoid new, ill-considered conquests like the one that got us into Iraq in the first place. Pape says a big reason for the multiplication of suicide bombings is simply the increasing size of populations under occupation. In the 1980s you had some 6 million Palestinians and Lebanese under Israeli occupation. Now some 20 million Iraqis (especially the 5 million Sunni Arabs) feel themselves under U.S. occupation--plus 18 million Saudis and some 2 million Kuwaitis who may see themselves as threatened by foreign troops in their neighborhood. "If we ever decide to invade Iran," says Pape, "we're going to discover that 70 million people can provide a lot more suicide bombers." To stop the spread of the suicide disease, in other words, we have to stop the spread of the occupation disease.