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The mastery of the suicide bomber.


As for our enemies, shouldn’t we restrict
Their freedom of expression, scandalised
When they advocate violence that costs them
Their lives since it flies in the teeth
Of the violence we mete out from some
Invulnerable height?

—From a poem by the author.

IT OCCURS TO ME that there is a paradigmatic relationship between drones and suicide bombers. In his chapter on “Lordship and Bondage” in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Georg Hegel wrote:

… it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won; only thus is it proved that for self-consciousness, its essential consciousness is not (just) being, not the immediate form in which it appears, nor its emergence in the expanse of life, but rather that there is nothing present in it which could not be regarded as a vanishing moment, that is pure being-for-self. The individual who has not risked his life may well be recognised as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.

For Hegel, writing in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, the master is one who is prepared to die for his cause, while the one who is not prepared to take this risk, whose consciousness accepts bondage rather than loss of life, will inevitably become enslaved.

Hegel distinguished between the truly human and the merely animal, defining the animal as the consciousness where self-preservation dominates action. In the preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit, he writes:

For it is the nature of humanity to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds. The anti-human, the merely animal, consists of staying within the sphere of feeling, and being able to communicate only at that level.

If we credit Hegel with a degree of wisdom, the prognosis looks bad for our “Western” way of life. As “masters of the universe” we have come to rely on the technology created by those held in the thrall of servitude. We live increasingly in isolated luxury. We make war from a distance, by remote control, at no risk to ourselves. Thus we have allowed ourselves to become enslaved, without really noticing it. Our tolerance of extremist beliefs may be put down to cowardice.

obl_oxfordTHERE’S A PHOTOGRAPH of Osama Bin Laden at Oxford in 1971. He was said to be “deep for his age.” I muse about him reading Hegel. Perhaps we should see suicide bombing as a considered philosophical and political strategy. Certainly we need to examine this manoeuvre from every angle if we are ever to defeat it.

Commenting on recent events in Paris, the poet Barry Schwabsky said, “If Zbigniew Brzezinski hadn’t had that brilliant idea to fund the Taliban against the Soviets – which last I heard he was still insisting was a brilliant idea – we would be living in a different world today.” The Soviet–Afghan War lasted from December 1979 to February 1989, and when Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson solicited a “black ops” sub-committee for additional funds to bankroll Afghani resistance, he opened a Pandora’s box we are still powerless to close.

Neo-con research at the time was exploring a line of enquiry that developed out of Pavlov and had first been used by the Chinese communists during the Korean war for brainwashing American and other Allied prisoners. Supposedly, isolation, periodic denial of food or water, exposure to the cold, and extreme stress associated with uncertainty of life or death, were conditions which, when combined with unending indoctrination could lead to the erasure of previous beliefs and behavior patterns.

Everyone got in on the act. B. F. Skinner developed the concept of “operant conditioning” in which a subject – animal or human – receives reinforcement for desired behavior.

The development of mind control techniques was already under way at Stanford University in the 1960s, with a scientist with a Freudian bent named William Colby, whose work was funded by the Department of Defense. Colby sought to capture the belief systems of his psychiatric patients. He then put these belief systems into the computer. He refined his research until he reckoned he was able to capture a patient’s personality structure in the computer and then use this computer model to control the patient’s behavior.

jdelgadoThen, in 1974, the idealistically inclined Dr. José Delgado, Director of Neuropsychiatry at Yale University Medical School, proclaimed that what was needed was “a program of psychosurgery and political control of our society. The purpose is physical control of the mind. Everyone who deviates from the given norm can be surgically mutilated.” He went on, “Man does not have the right to develop his own mind. This kind of liberal orientation has great appeal. But we must electrically control the brain. Some day armies and generals will be controlled by electrical stimulation….”

However, much as it may disappoint conspiracy theorists to acknowledge it, none of these techniques worked particularly well. The Chinese found it a useful tool for eliciting false confessions. But that was about as far as it went. Pretty obvious really. Torture me, and I will confess anything. That doubtless makes me a slave.

There are interesting photos of Afghan girls in Kabul during the Soviet occupation (which some might dub a liberation from entrenched chauvinist beliefs). They are dressed Western style in skirts and blouses and sipping coffee at cafes, and cheerfully studying to be lawyers or doctors. Charlie Wilson put a stop to all that. But the brain-washing wasn’t working, so far as creating a sacrificial Kamikaze-style warrior was concerned. Writing in The Telegraph in 2012, Ben Farmer pointed out that throughout the war against the Soviet invaders in the 1980s, and the civil strife that followed,

Afghan fighters of all factions rejected suicide attacks as cowardly and un-Islamic. The tactic was adopted only after 2001, learned from Arab jihadists who had used it to devastating effect in Iraq. The first Afghan suicide bomber is believed to have been a man called Hafez Abdallah, who in 2004 threw himself on a military Jeep and detonated mortar bombs strapped to his body.”

Given these Iraqi origins, it is probably questionable whether we can attribute the success of Islamic mind-control techniques to Bin Laden’s readings in philosophy. Noam Shpancer, writing in Psychology Today, considers that a key factor may well be what he calls ‘true believerism.’ This is

…the conviction that you and your group are in possession of The Truth. We tend to evaluate true believerism in terms of content, and as such we see it as dangerous and odd in others but not in ourselves. Somehow, our God stories – the resurrection of the dead, the parting of the sea, the animals on the arc – are glorious, deep, and perfectly laudable but their stories – the virgins, and 70 of them! – are strange, laughable, and loony.

True believerism, however, derives its destructive force not from content but from process. Once the ‘true believing’ process is in place, you can pour in any content with similarly destructive results. Whatever document you put into a shredder will be shredded, not by virtue of what the document says but by virtue of what a shredder does.”

Shpancer also touches on Hegel’s notion of an “achieved community of minds”:

For a society (or a group) that perceives itself as engaged in a territorial or ideological struggle for its very survival against overpowering enemies, it is not irrational to embrace, promote and celebrate individual acts of great sacrifice for the cause; particularly if the enemy is deemed less than human, as all enemies are always deemed; particularly if those acts are intoxicatingly brutal; particularly if they are shown to be effective weapons in the fight.”

He also argues that, given the context of our “fascination with violence, the power of society, and the twisting force of true believerism, suicide bombing becomes a reasonable, albeit extreme, human adaptation. It is not a crazed act of insane individuals, but a social ritual.”

However, Shpancer allows that other scholars disagree and believe that some suicide bombers may in fact be suicidal.

At the forefront is the University of Alabama’s Adam Lankford, who recently published an analysis of suicide terrorism in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior. Lankford cites Israeli scholars who interviewed would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. These scholars found that 40 percent of the terrorists showed suicidal tendencies; 13 percent had made previous suicide attempts, unrelated to terrorism. Lankford finds Palestinian and Chechen terrorists who are financially insolvent, recently divorced, or in debilitating health in the months prior to their attacks. A 9/11 hijacker, in his final note to his wife, describing how ashamed he is to have never lived up to her expectations. Terrorist recruiters admit they look for the ‘sad guys’ for martyrdom.”

BUT THIS VIEW IS often contested. In a well-researched paper written for the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, “The Social Psychology of Suicide Terrorism“, Luis de la Corte Ibáñez points out that there are two patterns of social influence to be considered: a bottom-up pattern, where the initiative comes from suicide-favouring attackers joining a radical group, inspired by its example (this can be seen with Al Qaeda which does not have a recruitment programme initiated by its leadership). Such a pattern contrasts with the top-down pattern of recruiting violent men for black-op style missions favoured by our own covert organisations.

As with all persuasion to perform violent acts, depersonalisation plays a role – encouraging the belief that one is simply part of a team…

As with all persuasion to perform violent acts, depersonalisation plays a role – encouraging the belief that one is simply part of a team, interchangeable, but dedicated to promoting the interests and goals of the organisation. Social cohesion reinforces this and encourages a propensity for groups to develop attitudes and make decisions that are “more extreme than the mean of individual members’ initial positions.” Negative stereotypes are encouraged – as they were for the allies when pitted against the “Krauts” or the “Japs”. This leads to a world view that divides humanity into us and them. Then asymmetric conflicts tend to lead the disadvantaged side to consider desperate measures – as was the case with the Japanese pilots towards the end of the Second World war. Thus the use of superior technology to stamp them out may actively generate more suicidal fighters, especially where there is much collateral damage and conflict seems endless and intractable and where there is a breath-taking contrast between the life-style of the dispossessed and that of their oppressors (with their remote-controlled weaponry).

Suicidal heroics can also be stimulated by draconian repression of the activities of the group (as with Nazi reprisals) and a culture of martyrdom can easily take root in an environment where life is so cheap that the death of a wife, a child, a sibling or a parent is pretty much an everyday occurrence.

Hassan-i-SabbahIneluctably, suicide as a weapon is associated with Islam today, since it is Islamic fighters who seem to have re-discovered its efficacy. Presumably the berserk Vikings feared death not at all, since they were going to Valhalla. So it is not unique to Islam by any means, and there is evidence that the notion of “The Old Man of the Mountains” — Hassan-i Sabbāh, a Nizārī Ismā‘īlī warrior-aristocrat who sent out his suicidal hashish-consuming assassins, assured in their trances of Paradise, to fight the Crusaders – was more likely to have been to be a concoction of the Crusaders (to cover up their own hits on rivals – such as Richard the Lionheart’s murder of the King of Jerusalem). These days, the Ismailis are patrons of The Paris Review.

Deceit is ubiquitous, clearly, but one aspect of Islamic ways that I have sensed (at least among those who travel between “our” world and “theirs”), is a tendency to lead a double life. Many years ago I was at a party in Bologna thrown in a nightclub by some Arabian princes. There were girls there from Manchester University (on the same course as one of these Royals). The girls had been flown in for the party, and much good whiskey was consumed while we all danced together to Donna Summer. At the end of the evening a prince began pouring an extra large bottle of whiskey into the ice-bucket. I remonstrated with him and with a shrug he gave me the bottle, saying that it was no use to him: he was flying back to Bahrain the next day. A few weeks later, a princess of that region was stoned to death by her brothers – for committing adultery.

This suggests a species of institutionalized schizophrenia which may play a role in the duality required to live a normal life in the West until your martyrdom is activated, either by some crisis in life or by instruction from above.

Writing in The Spectator recently, Douglas Murray is correct in pointing out that Islam’s very texts can foster a blood-thirsty attitude and thus provide a fertile mental environment for martyrdom based on true-believerism. Of course, as he says, prominent clerics could unite to declare the extremists non-Muslim:

But there isn’t much hope of this happening. Last month, al-Azhar University in Cairo declared that although Isis members are terrorists they cannot be described as heretics.”

There are few things more dangerous than a religion in its death-throes. We are fortunate in that “our” Church (of England) is comfortably dead.

There are few things more dangerous than a religion in its death-throes. We are fortunate in that “our” Church (of England) is comfortably dead. It has no power in government – give or take a few bishops in the Lords. You don’t have to “believe” in it to any intense degree, unless you are terribly high. That the relatively comatose nature of common-or-garden Christianity is a blessing may be borne out by the numbers of Muslims converting soon after they arrive in the EU.

The Evangelical Trinity Church in Berlin (which seems more interested in baking than baptism, as far as one can tell from its website) has seen its congregation grow from 150 to 600 in the last two years. Fewer than 10 percent return to their original faith. Of course it’s convenient. It means you can’t be sent back, in many cases, because you might be persecuted for apostasy. We shouldn’t whinge about that. Convenience is a far better reason for choosing a faith than “faith”. “Paris is worth a mass.”

WE CAN EXPECT TROUBLE from any neck of the woods where religion is still kicking, especially when its end is nigh. Jewish extremists settled on the West Bank know their days are numbered, and this makes them vicious. The rulers of Saudi Arabia find themselves in a similar position. Increasingly their citizens are turning to atheism. Recently also there were demonstrations in Damascus for neither Sunni nor Shia governance but for secular governance. Just as in the middle ages we exported our third sons to cause mayhem in the middle east, so the rulers of Riyadh, who also run Mecca, send out their delinquent youth to cause mayhem elsewhere. Sitting on a powder-keg themselves, they try their best to roll it off their territory.

For all Hegel’s faith in being prepared to sacrifice one’s life, I wonder how efficient the jihadist strategy is, without the covert help of one’s enemy. Taking the bottom-up pattern as the most likely, given that control from the top may be eavesdropped, resulting in failure of mission, isolated cells will surely be tempted to take the law into their own hands, especially if the law is grounded in one’s “true-belief” – therefore inspired by the will of God – however the cell or the individual may interpret that will. Couple that with a propensity to annihilate oneself, as cited by Lankford, the availability of all manner of arms, since the market was flooded by Kalashnikovs and such with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and we find ourselves in a maverick landscape where violent acts detonate as predictably as natural disasters (in that they will happen) but without even a geological cause, generated neither by an overseeing Mahdi (who may nevertheless claim the atrocity) nor by false flag or conspiracy. As with the disasters attendant on global warming, we have simply created the cocked-up environment in which these acts occur.


HEGEL’S INTUITION CONCERNING the willingness of the master to lay life down for some higher aspiration strikes a chord with the notion of the “selfish gene” — as promoted by Richard Dawkins — where the faltering old mare in a herd chased by wolves may break away and allow herself to be pulled down, in order that the herd may escape (and the gene survive at the cost of the individual).  This rather puts a spoke in Hegel’s wheel, since it implies that altruism is as much part of our animal nature as the instinct to preserve life by running away.  A misconception of such sacrifice clearly motivates the suicidal true-believer.  I think we may derive some comfort, though, from this consideration. So long as we don’t go about causing a multiplication by retributive means, as cited above, willingness to commit suicide is a pretty rare phenomenon, even among fundamentalists.

We are dealing with gangs rather than armies, and we would be better served by treating eradication as a “police operation”, or a job for the commando elite of our armed forces.

It is evidence of a weakness in number.  There aren’t that many conventional troops either, so the suicide bomber is called to put on a vest.  Were this not the case, were there a glut of suicidal believers, surely there would have been 60 be-vested individuals engaged in the recent attacks, not six?  The act may fill us with horror, but it’s nothing to the damage wreaked by Bomber Harris over Dresden, or to the damage, mainly collateral, caused by our jets, drones and missiles.  We are dealing with gangs rather than armies, and we would be better served by treating eradication as a “police operation”, or a job for the commando elite of our armed forces.

The SAS are called for, rather than our more “rhetorical” weaponry – which is massively expensive, makes a huge bang but tends to kill the wrong people since it is intended as a threat; that is, as a deterrent device rather than one with any specific active purpose.  Bombs in the hold of drones are meant to be rhetorical. When activated, their species of invulnerable warfare is always resented and inspires contempt.  These are the resources of wealthy cowards.

Added 29 December 2015:

The day may well be ours if we send in intrepid guys, willing to risk their lives. A perceptive film to watch is Good Kill (2014) – it’s currently available on Netflix UK.  It examines what may happen when that risk is taken away. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, and based on actual events, it features Ethan Hawke as a US Air Force officer stationed in the desert near Las Vegas, who controls the launching of missiles by a drone in Afghanistan. It’s riskless war-making from many thousands of miles away; a video-game killing system, which at the end of the day he is supposed to close a trailer door on, and go back to wife, kids and barbecue. It causes a deep wound in the psyche of this former fighter pilot. Perhaps some of the issues could have been gone into further, and naturally it’s a dramatized version of what it may feel like to make war from afar, but still it’s a film which goes a some way to provoking thought on the subject


Anthony HowellAnthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here.

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