Nov 21, 2007
The Most Extreme of the Extremists
Suicide bombers are not crazy and indeed are often driven primarily by motivators other than religious zeal, argues a University of Toronto sociology professor in a new research paper he says is likely to prove controversial.
In a paper published in the November issue of Contexts, a journal of the American Sociological Association published by University of California Press, Robert Brym argues that the most effective way of developing a workable strategy for dealing with such assaults is first understanding the assailant's point of view.
Dr. Brym's work focused primarily on the Middle East conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, a topic he said he was at first reluctant to pursue - despite completing his bachelor's degree in Jerusalem - because it was so sensitive. However, in 2003, he was on a PhD selection committee when he came across a Palestinian student looking to do research on suicide bombers. Eventually, he began working with the student and an Israeli student on the topic. The Israeli student interviewed counterterrorism officials; the Palestinian student interviewed militants.
Dr. Brym's research suggests that empathy, rather than aggression, is the more effective tool for combatting suicide bombings.
"It is controversial," Dr. Brym said in an interview. "But ... our interviews led to the conclusion that much of decisions [regarding suicide bombing] involve retaliation. It is possible for the Israeli state to suppress the other side, but given the high motivation of both sides, they find workarounds."
Dr. Brym pointed to the decrease of suicide bombings in Israel over the past few years, adding that the number of rockets launched during the same period has shot up.
Dr. Brym was quick to point out that empathy doesn't have to entail "warm and fuzzy feelings" for the other side, but rather meaningful rewards and goals, such as releasing Palestinian tax dollars and working toward a two-state solution.
Intertwined with Dr. Brym's thesis is a parallel argument that suicide bombers are not necessarily driven by religion. In the case of the Middle East conflict, he says, notions of martyrdom and holy war began to gain popularity after secular approaches failed. He highlights another study that found fewer than half of suicide bombers between 1980 and 2003 (for whom ideological background information could be found) were identifiably religious.
Dr. Brym also points to the tendency for suicide bombings to happen in clusters as proof that there's often a political or strategic aim behind such attacks. A classic example, he said, took place in the mid-nineties, when Palestinian militants feared a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was imminent.
But harsh repression on the part of the Israelis often reinforces extremist beliefs or leads militants to resort to even deadlier methods, Dr. Brym argues.
"In general, severe repression can work for a while, but a sufficiently determined mass opposition will always be able to design new tactics to surmount new obstacles, especially if its existence as a group is visibly threatened and unless, of course, the mass opposition is exterminated in its entirety," Dr. Brym writes.
"One kind of 'success' usually breeds another kind of 'failure' if the motivation of insurgents is high."