The Economics of Suicide Terrorism

Economist Mark Harrison on self-interest, organized suicide acts, and the desire to belong

videos | August 10, 2015

What has suicide to do with protecting one’s identity? Why does the self of a martyr require self-destruction? Why do young people join terrorist factions? These and other questions are answered by Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick Mark Harrison.

So I think suicide terrorism is interesting as well as important. Those two things don’t always go together. But in this case they clearly do. And suicide terrorism is interesting to me partly because it is such an extreme, an outlandish phenomenon, yet when we look really closely we see that it can be allocated to various parts of life which are really quite ordinary. And so a couple of things come to mind. And one of them is that suicide terrorism is a form of suicide. There are different kinds of suicide. And psychologists who work on suicide normally distinguish determined attempts to kill oneself from what is sometimes called para-suicide, that is forms of suicidal behavior that are really cries for help. Namely you try to kill yourself, but you hope you don’t succeed, you hope that somebody will notice and come and help you.

Now when we look at suicide terrorism, it is clearly not a cry for help. It is a determined attempt to destroy oneself and others. So it has to be understood in those terms. But the thing that I think it has in common is the need first will to understand the self. This is something that economists are probably not always very good at. Economists talk very freely about self-interest. It is commonplace in economic textbooks to find the idea that human behavior is driven by the desire to maximize one’s self-interest or one’s personal utility. What’s not commonly asked is who is the self whose interest is being maximized.

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I mean, when we look at the evolution of the person, we see that the self is something that is evolved and is created partly through a series of choices. So I have a self, I’m a middle-aged English academic. In my family, in my professional work, in my leisure – I have various selves that have been created partly by accident, but partly also from choices that I’ve made in my life. And so when I talk about maximizing my own self-interest, I can’t divorce that from the fact I am who I am. It’s probably going to be very difficult for me then to make choices that destroy my identity as what I’ve just said – a middle-aged English academic. For example, if I committed an egregious act of fraud, if I abused a child, I would be shamed and disgraced, and I would lose a very important and valuable part of my identity.

So one way that social psychologists understand suicide is that the person who commits suicide has a determined attempt, has reached the point where they can no longer protect the identity they have by staying alive and protecting the identity they have requires an active self-destruction. So you could think, for example, the child who aspires to be a model, but isn’t that good looking; the child who aspires to be a genius, but actually isn’t that clever – these are children who’ve made choices about the self they want to be that they can’t sustain and they’ve reached a point where it’s seems better to destroy their physical existence than to proceed where this is incompatible with the self they want to be.

When we look at people who commit acts of suicide terrorism, what we see is people who have gone on a journey that’s invested them with the self that requires self-destruction, because the identity that is required is that of the martyr, the witness to religious truth that can only be validated through death. And in the one of the things that we see when we look at the organization of suicide terrorism is that it’s not committed, acts of suicide terrorism are not committed by people who are desperate; it is not committed by people who are in any way particularly unusual psychologically. It is committed by young people who’ve been trained to see themselves as martyrs to a faith.

It is committed by young people trained in that way: the only way they can fulfill the self they’ve chosen is to kill themselves.

And we also see that while the stage that precedes the act of suicide terrorism is an act of commitment. That is a volunteer is seated in front of the video camera and makes a speech about the act they are going to commit, about the value that this will create to their religion, and then somebody else takes the video, puts it in an envelope, puts it in the post. By the time that video arrives at the television station it is very important to the martyr that the martyr is dead, because otherwise everybody’s going to laugh.

So what you can see here is in many ways quite a cold-blooded process: it requires organization, requires multiple people working together, and that’s why I think acts of suicide terrorism very rarely is people acting on their own, almost always there’s an organization behind it. There’s a procedure, there’s a methodology that ends in the commitment of the young person to a course that can only end in death.

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And so I think the insight of an economist simply to say: “Well, yes, this is all about the pursuit of self-interest with the difference that we have to understand the self that has been manipulated and formed in a way that has to end in self-destruction.” I think it starts from the idea that people who engage in acts of terrorism are typically young, very ordinary, I should have said young men almost always, and often show surprising ignorance about the course to which they are devoted.

So this is a result that comes essentially from people who set out on the course of suicide terrorism that have been intercepted, and arrested, and interrogated. There’s quite a large volume of evidence now that has come from security services, for example, in Israel (I guess that is probably the most important source), but also in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq where suicide terrorism has been a big problem, and security services have had some success in intercepting and preventing acts of suicide terrorism.

So what Abraham says is: to understand suicide terrorism, it’s less important to understand the religion, the religion is there as mechanism, but it’s also important to understand what drives the young person. And often what drives the young person is simply the desire to belong. When people say: describe the motivations that led them to join a terrorist faction, the commonest answer is “I joined because my friends joined”, or “I joined because I liked somebody who’s in the faction”.

In the process of being recruited they don’t actually learn a lot about global politics, they don’t learn a lot about the demands of the organization, they don’t learn a lot about political strategy. In fact, these things are not very important to them.

What they are looking for is some form of social solidarity.

And you can get social solidarity in many ways: you can get it from working together in a firm, you can get it from joining a choir or a cycling club or a sports club, but you can also get it – we know this from a lot of examples – you can get it by joining together to commit acts of violence. Sometimes that’s football hooliganism, sometimes it’s terrorism.

So Abraham’s point is that to understand what people are looking for when they join the organizations it’s important to understand the lure of powerful social ties. And again, I think coming back to the perspective economics, the economists will say: “Well, these people are maximizing some kind of self-interest”, which I think is true, you know, probably in a rather trivial way: as long as you understand the self, and as long as you understand the needs of the self for solidaristic ties with the other young men and the need to bond with other young man, this time in an organization that has destructive purposes and that also involves self-destruction.

Department of Economics and CAGE, University of Warwick; Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham; Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford University
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