Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Killing Mind

Apparently Israel has allowed some jailhouse interviews Rafat Moqadi, a Palestinian suicide bomber who changed his mind at the moment he was supposed to detonate himself in a Tel Aviv restaurant. Both AP and CBS have stories on him. (I can't find the AP one on the Net yet.)

As the pace of attacks increases in the Middle East and beyond, a surprising profile is emerging [Surprising to the AP, I guess -- ed.] of those willing to take their own lives: many are young, middle class and educated.

Nearly four-fifths of all suicide attacks over the past 35 years have occurred since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist strikes in the U.S., according to the RAND Center for Terrorism Risk Management. And 80 percent of those have been carried out by radical Islamic groups, said the center's director, Bruce Hoffman.

Both the AP and CBS stories steer the "motivation" angle away from religion. "But religion is only part of the picture," AP writes. "Moqadi said that wasn't his motivation."

"The main reason was to resist the (Israeli) occupation, to create a balance of power with the Israeli army," he said.

"At the moment they put the (explosives) belt on me there were a few seconds of doubt," he said. "But after that I felt strength. I felt stronger than the whole state of Israel. It was a good feeling."

Emphasis added. Moqadi said he joined Hamas "in response to massive gunbattles between Israeli forces and Palestinians in Jenin."

Yet the attempt to steer it away from religions inevitably spirals back toward it. AP writes of the role of group commitment, and then specifically of the heroic image of the suicide bomber in modern Palestinian culture.

Often what makes the person carry out the mission is commitment to a group, making it difficult to back out without losing face, experts say. Many of today's suicide bombers, especially in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, come from societies where many people condone the action, making it easier to execute.

CBS tracks down Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a Muslim who heads Gaza's only psychiatric clinic.

The families of suicide bombers often come to him for help after the deed is done. That's how he has built up his profile. But are the people who want to become suicide bombers especially violent?

“No. On the contrary. If you look at their personal histories, they usually were very timid people, introvert, their problem was always communication in public or communicating their feelings, so they were not violent at all,” says Sarraj.

“There is a pool of suicide bombers everywhere in the world among the community of Islam and Arabs everywhere. They are ready to act when the time comes. Anybody who is living in this area, including yourself, would have seen the rise of temperature, the rise of hatred, the rise of anger every year after year because of the continuous suffering of these people.”

And in Gaza, if you want to tap into this pool of hatred and suicide bombers, you don't need to go further than the neighborhood mosque.

“If they know I am the one who is going to recruit, they will come for me. I just give the message in the mosque that this is what we should do,” says Sarraj. “And then people who are ready will contact me.”

The AP notes the work of Western terrorism expert Jessica Stern on this topic. Stern is more or less non-partisan (she's an opponent of many Bush policies, but who isn't?), and she has focused on Christian, Jewish and Islamic terrorists. In this interview, her frothing Bush-hating questioner wants her to assent to the idea that, "Because of 9/11, many Americans have demonized that this is something that’s Islamic. ... It’s getting back to this point that it’s not exclusive to any one religion, and, therefore, the battle against it isn’t a crusade -- quote, unquote -- because there are many more common factors between terrorists of different religions than terrorism as defined within a religion."

Stern, politely, won't have it.

But there’s something about what’s going on in the Islamic world. Islamist terrorist leaders are able to raise large armies. As you know, we don’t see Jewish terrorists able to raise large armies, and we don’t see Christian terrorists able to raise large armies.

More recently, Stern and researcher Scott Atran have noted that today's Islamic radicals operating in the West (the 9/11, London, and Madrid bombers) have a different profile than the Palestinian and Iraqi bombers. They "have no clear political goals but instead act 'to oppose a perceived global evil.' ... [M]any potential suicide bombers in the West feel marginalized from society and 'bond as they surf jihadi websites to find direction and purpose.' " [AP, quoting a letter from Stern and Atran]

Abdel Haleem Izzedin, an Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank town of Jenin, said Palestinian candidates for suicide bombings are "normal people" who "believe that Israel is occupying and confiscating their land and want to fight back."

Bombers in places like Madrid and London, he said, were "unusual" and "extreme."

Which suggests two different problems, rooted in one religious/cultural tradition. Perhaps two solutions are in order. The rigorous "law enforcement" approach might work best in the West. In the Middle East? Most suicide bombers were men in their late teens or early 20s. Almost all were single and childless. Many suicide bombers have come from middle class families and have attended a university. But most were "relatively unimportant people, not leader types but follower types," one psychologist said.

How about giving those restless young men something to live for besides death. Give them some sense of a stake in their own futures, a country to participate in governing, a job not dependent on bribery, a chance to raise children who can do even better than their parents did. The American Dream? Something like that. Why not? You got a better idea? As Samuel Johnson knew, "There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money."

Moqadi, serving time in an Israeli jail, is not getting the American Dream. He'll be out on the Gaza streets again by the time he's the age Mohammed Atta was when he plowed a jet into the World Trade Center. AP reports Moqadi "spends most of his time in jail learning to speak, read and write Hebrew, the language of the Jewish state. Islam, he said, teaches that it's important to 'know your enemy.' "

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