Obviously the attacks on New York and Washington shocked us because we were stunned to be hit so dramatically, as if we'd stumbled into a made-for-TV movie, right in our own country. But an additional element of our stunned shock arose from the tactics of the terrorists: they were willing to kill not only a lot of other people, but also themselves, by flying those planes into buildings.
I remember struggling to imagine what could motivate a person to be willing to die in this gruesome fashion. Soldiers risk death but hope to survive; suicide terrorists use their own death as a weapon. That's very different. In the years since we've seen more suicide terrorism (mixed in with lots of more conventional guerilla "insurgencies" in the arenas where we've gone to war) so the practice has lost some of its shock. But that initial shock in 2001 was appropriate -- there was something happening that needed unpacking. Instead, as journalist Saul Friedman wisely reminded us the other day:
Saul adds "for no reason." I concur but that is not my subject today.
In 2004, Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, tried to provide a data-driven answer to the conundrum of suicide terrorism in his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Pape asked some sensible questions:
There's little evidence that Washington, under Republicans or later Democrats, ever asked these sensible questions. The Bush-Cheney set treated understanding what we were up against as symptom of weakness -- and sadly, President Obama seems trapped by the logic of their war.
Pape's study of 315 incidents of suicide terrorism between 1980 and 2003 convinced him that we have to understand that those who use the tactic are pursuing, from their point of view, a rational course:
But we might object, the U.S. is not a colonial power ... Pape says that's taking the wrong angle of vision:
It may seem wacky to us that troops based in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War should create such a sense of insult, but many local people do see U.S. troops based anywhere in the Middle East as occupiers. Since 9/11, we've massively magnified the insult.
Pape argues that a religious difference between occupied and occupier is not a sufficient condition for suicide terrorism to attract adherents -- but the difference does serve as a sort of recruiting multiplier:
Pape insists that al-Qaeda's successes have come from nimbly exploiting a mix of warped religion with nationalism:
Because in our society we think of suicide as evidence of individual instability (even when it is recent war vets who are doing the dying), we look for individual pathologies to understand recruits who join suicide terrorism campaigns. But as many have marveled, many suicide terrorists seem very ordinary. Pape takes this observation further:
Pape shows the information is there for a far smarter, more effective response to the reality that there are people around the world who would like to kill people in the United States. But no -- we get airport security theater, protests about mosques, and wars aplenty. Something is rotten in this empire ...