Shankar Vedantam is a 2009–2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a national science writer at The Washington Post. The winner of several journalism awards, Vedantam currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Suicide bombers are, all too sadly, increasingly back in the news lately.
Writing in newmatilda Vedantam analyses what makes a suicide bomber. The finding is most likely contrary to what you thought:
"What prompts a man to agree to kill the pilot of a plane he is travelling on? To strap a bomb to his chest and explode himself? Is religion to blame? Do the young Muslim men blowing themselves up in Iraq and Pakistan and other theatres of today’s conflicts really believe that dozens of virgins will attend on them in the afterlife? For nonbelievers, followers of other faiths, and the vast majority of Muslims themselves, such beliefs seem fantastic. And if suicide bombers really seek nothing but death, it means they cannot be deterred.
There is an alternative explanation, but this does not give us many options, either. Are suicide bombers basically suicidal? Are they depressed people out to kill themselves, whose impulses are directed by terrorist masterminds into murderous channels? Might suicide terrorism be more about suicide than about terrorism?
Ariel Merari once wondered if this was so. But then the Israeli psychologist set out to do what most commentators on terrorism do not do — he began to look for evidence. He collected detailed biographical accounts of suicide terrorists. He spent hours interviewing young Arab men and women in Israeli prisons, people who had planned to kill themselves but had seen their missions go awry. And one by one, his preconceptions fell away.
Suicide terrorists are not crazy. If anything, Merari and other psychologists have found that these men and women seem to have fewer mental disorders than the general population. As a group, they are hardly more religious than everyone else. Large numbers of suicide terrorists do not come from religious backgrounds at all. Many are secular, even atheists."