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Suicide Bombing and Altruism
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Andrew Sullivan links to this science news brief, which says:

Altruism — a counterintuitive and little-studied motive for suicide — suggests that suicide terrorism is a phenomenon of group psychology and organizational behavior, rather than an outgrowth of fundamentalist religious beliefs.

The distinction could prove important, researchers say.


Doesn't this seem strange?

Studying 743 nonsuicide and 80 suicide acts of terrorism from 1993-2002, the researchers sought traits they thought would distinguish altruism from egoism.

Pedahzur and his co-authors reasoned that altruistic suicide terrorists would “go through a longer socialization process” in an organization than non-suicide terrorists.

“As dictated by the altruistic perspective, people who commit suicide terrorism are strongly integrated into a social group and do so as a means of helping the group attain its goals,” said Pedahzur.

Suicide terrorists would also have a “stronger religious background and more religious education” the researchers said.

So they're saying it's more to do with socialization and group mentality, but then they note that the terrorists have a stronger religious background and more religious education. Huh?

How does this jive with the assertion in the first part I quoted?

They claim individuals who kill themselves in search of “a lofty and glorious place for themselves” fall into a different but closely related category — “acute altruistic suicide.”

Acute altruistic suicide “stems from a strong religious conviction in the glorious destiny which awaits the perpetrator in the afterlife,” Pedahzur said. “With a serene conviction derived from the feeling of duty accomplished, this person is carried to his death in a burst of faith and enthusiasm.”

Faith alone, however, does not a terrorist make, Ginges cautioned. “I found personal devotion to and belief in Islam unrelated to support for terrorism,” he said.

Say what? They just said above that suicide bombers tend to be more religious. Maybe this piece isn't doing the research justice, but it stinks like week-old fish to me.

I could see how some people might engage in altruistic suicide...the firefighters during 9/11, for instance. But there definitely seems to be more going on in the instance of an Islamic suicide bomber. For one, they aren't killing themselves alone, or saving members of their community in anything like a direct way.

The speech that comes from an organization like al Qaeda is full of hate, for Americans, for Jews. When they blow themselves up they are targetting people that they believe are infidels...enemies of their religion, in a sense, non-people. They also have an expectation of a reward in heaven for themselves. The article says that this latter motivation is a primary motivation for suicide bombing in a minority of cases. But how do you tease out primary and secondary motivations? I have a hard time believing that any of these people would willingly blow themselves up if they didn't think they were A) Sending a batchful of infidels off to hell, and B) Promoting their own place in a really nice afterlife.

This hardly seems altruistic, in either the scientific sense of the word, or the lay philosophical meaning. The author of the study seems to be either denying or downplaying these motivations. I would like to know their methodology in a little more detail. What terrorist, I wonder, would tell an interviewer that their main motivation for wanting to blow themselves up is to get a bunch of virgin pussy in the afterlife?

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