The Obama Administration sponsored a three-day conference on violent extremism that wrapped up on Thursday. At the summit, community leaders from Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Boston highlighted partnerships in their cities that are aimed at protecting young people from extremist ideologies.
In his concluding remarks, President Obama said, “We know from experience that the best way to protect people, especially young people, from falling into the grip of violent extremists is the support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders.
“Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today’s youth something better.
“Governments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change. Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies. Those efforts must be matched by economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.”
Well, maybe. But I can’t help but think that the president is missing something.
A martyr is somebody who suffers persecution or death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, and/or refusing to advocate a belief or cause. Most martyrs are considered holy or are respected by their followers, becoming a symbol of leadership and heroism.
Martyrs play significant roles in the Abrahamic religions, as well as in Hinduism, the Bahá’í faith, and Sikhism. Similarly, there have been secular martyrs such as Socrates (who accepted death by hemlock rather than giving up his ideals of enlightenment), as well as in politics and in Chinese culture.
Suicide bombers are now behaving as the Japanese did toward the end of World War II when, in desperation, they sent pilots crashing into US ships. These kamikaze attacks were both effective and terrifying, but they were also a clear sign that Japan had gone nuts. The Japanese plan for defeating the Allies was mad, born of a resolution never to surrender and a powerful self-denial of their true position.
The kamikaze attacks were an important element in the dehumanizing of Japanese people. They permitted the use of the atomic bomb. After all, went the thinking of the time, the enemy was irrational and barbaric. It would never surrender. It would fight to the last citizen. Better to incinerate them all and protect our own soldiers. Children growing up in the US were taught that the Asian peoples held life cheaply—not only the lives of others, but also those of their own.
In a similar manner, suicide bombings have transformed the image of radical Islamists. Now, in the view of many, they are so different, so primitive, so cruel and indifferent to human life, that they will celebrate the suicide of a loved one and the simultaneous murder of innocent people.
A couple films from Japan that have come out in recent years shows that the Western reaction to the kamikaze was simplistic and wrong. These films focus on the few kamikaze pilots who survived the war because they were lucky victims of mechanical failure or bad weather, ditched their planes at sea, and lived to tell the tale.
The fact that they did survive meant that they have been able to correct the central myth of the kamikaze—that these young pilots all went to their deaths willingly, enthused by the Samurai spirit.
In the words of Kenichiro Oonuki, one such survivor, when he and his fellow fighter pilots were first asked to volunteer for this “special attack mission” they thought the whole idea “ridiculous.” But, given the night to think about their decision, the men reconsidered. They feared that if they did not volunteer, their families would be ostracized and their parents told that their son was “a coward, not honorable, shameful.” And then, as fighter pilots, they would be sent to the most dangerous part of the front line where they would still die—but dishonored.
As a result, “everyone put down the answer which was opposite from what we were feeling. Probably it’s unthinkable in the current days of peace. Nobody wanted to, but everybody said, ‘Yes, [I volunteer] with all my heart.’ That was the surrounding atmosphere. We could not resist.”
Something akin to peer pressure overcomes one’s basic instinct to survive. Plus, the Japanese kamikaze were put into a corner from which they could not escape.
Much has been made of the promise that the Islamic martyr will enjoy the services of more than 70 virgins and 70 wives in paradise: “They shall recline on jeweled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine (that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason); with fruits of their own choice and flesh of fowls that they relish.”
Imams go into the mosques and make fiery statements about fighting for God’s mission and purpose, but they also know their audiences. In the range of 18-40 years, there are more men in each age group than women, and they’re horny and vulnerable to cheap promises. Says Mustapha Tlili, founder and director of the New York University Center for Dialogues: Islamic World-US-The West. “They are told that if they die, they will go to paradise,” he says.
“This is their reward, rather than money. If you paid in hard currency, you would have to have gold. If you pay in paradise currency, you don’t have to have anything. It’s cheap currency but it works.”
Columnist David Brooks has said: “Suicide bombing is the crack cocaine of warfare. It doesn’t just inflict death and terror on its victims; it intoxicates the people who sponsor it. It unleashes the deepest and most addictive human passions—the thirst for vengeance, the desire for religious purity, the longing for earthly glory and eternal salvation.”
Add this to the raging hormones and loneliness that many young people feel, and you have a volatile admixture that the imams who encourage violence cynically take advantage of.
For decades, experts from the most powerful governments and prestigious universities around the world have told us that suicide bombers are psychologically normal men and women driven by a single-minded purpose: self-sacrifice. As it turns out, this claim originated with the terrorist leaders themselves, who insisted that they would never recruit mentally unstable people to carry out suicide attacks.
As these strikes have become both increasingly common and increasingly deadly, no one has challenged this conventional wisdom. Yet in his book The Myth of Martyrdom, Adam Lankford argues that these so-called experts have it all wrong. The truth is that most suicide terrorists are like any other suicidal person—longing to escape from unbearable pain, be it depression, anxiety, marital strife, or professional failure. Their “martyrdom” is essentially a cover for an underlying death wish.
Drawing on an array of primary sources, including suicide notes, love letters, diary entries, and martyrdom videos, Lankford reveals the important parallels that exist between suicide bombers, airplane hijackers, cult members, and rampage shooters. The result is an astonishing account of rage and shame that will transform the way we think of terrorism forever. We can’t hope to stop these deadly attacks, Lankford argues, until we understand what’s really behind them.
So maybe the president’s right… at least partially. Suicide bombing and hopelessness go hand-in-hand.
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