Making Sense of Suicide Missions

By Diego Gambetta | Go to book overview

7
Motivations and Beliefs in Suicide Missions

JON ELSTER

Why do people kill themselves for other reasons than that they do not want to live? The special case of why they engage in suicide bombings or (as on 11 September 2001) other modes of suicide missions (SMs) is the main topic of the present chapter. I shall also, however, consider some broader issues of politically motivated suicides.

To address the special case, we need a distinction between two levels of actors. At the first level are those who sacrifice their lives (the suicide attackers). At the second level are those who incite and enable them to do so (the organizers).1 Unlike self-immolations, which are largely individual acts, SMs are rarely undertaken spontaneously but instigated or coordinated by religious or political leaders. The bus driver Abu Olbeh who on 14 February 2001 drove his bus into a crowd of soldiers in Azur (near TelAviv), killing eight, was apparently not affiliated with or sponsored by any political faction, but nor was his act suicidal.

To make sense of these missions, we can adopt the usual explanatory machinery of the social sciences, the key elements being the motivations and beliefs of the actors, attackers, and organizers, and the constraints they face. We may also want to consider skills as an explanatory element. The reason skills are not usually cited in standard analyses of actions is that their presence or absence can be accounted for in terms of motivations and constraints. For some individuals, some skills may be out of reach even with the strongest motivation to acquire them and with unlimited resources (the blind cannot become trapeze artists). They are directly skill-constrained. Those who lack the resources that would enable them to acquire the skills are indirectly skill-constrained (poor families cannot afford pianos or piano lessons for their children). Those who fail to acquire the skills because they are insufficiently motivated are subject to short-run constraints (I cannot speak Russian) but not to long-term constraints (I could learn it).

Making a reliable bomb is difficult. Flying a large plane into the towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) is probably even more difficult. The latter task, however, has to be carried out by the suicide attackers themselves, a fact

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Making Sense of Suicide Missions
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Foreword v
  • Contents xi
  • List of Tables xii
  • List of Figures xiii
  • List of Contributors xiv
  • 1: Kamikaze, 1943–5 1
  • Appendix Poems and Songs 33
  • Last Testimonies 35
  • Names of Special Attack Units 40
  • Non-Japanese Suicide Missions of the Second World War 42
  • 2: Tamil Tigers, 1987–2002 43
  • 3: Palestinians, 1981–2003 77
  • Appendix: Data Quality and Sources 117
  • 4: Al-Qaeda, September 11, 2001 131
  • 5: Dying without Killing 173
  • 6: Killing without Dying 209
  • 7: Motivations and Beliefs in Suicide Missions 233
  • 8: Can We Make Sense of Suicide Missions? 259
  • Notes 301
  • References 337
  • Index 357
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