What compels a man to give his life for an idea or conviction?

I’ve been pondering this question ever since the news broke earlier this week of the attacks in Brussels that took the lives of 31 Belgians and travelers from around the world who happened to be in a city targeted by extremists. The men who took the lives of these innocent civilians also sacrificed their own lives, intentionally, in the process. What compelled these men to do so?

As a social scientist, I have studied the factors that predict the act of suicide more generally, outside of the context of terrorism. Thomas Joiner, a clinical psychologist who is one of the world’s leading experts on suicide, has shown that three factors together seem to predict suicide and suicidal ideation—two of the three factors are motivational, and the third is more of an ability. People who commit suicide seem driven by feelings of social disconnection, which Joiner likes to call “thwarted belonging.” Even more powerfully, however, is the sense of being a burden on others. This sense of burdensomeness, somewhat ironically, requires a basic sense of social connection. You can’t be a burden on others unless you have this connection, after all. It seems, though, that it takes less intimacy with others to be able to feel oneself a burden than it does to feel meaningfully connected, to feel you truly belong.

Motivated by the duel forces of thwarted belonging and burdensomeness, people still must be able to overcome the powerful instinct for self-preservation. The ability to destroy oneself is, according to Joiner, an acquired capacity, one often earned by repeated trials and experiences with pain, such as overdosing on pills or alcohol, or cutting. Often viewed by others as cries for help, these experiences slowly erode the survival instinct and build up a person’s tolerance for pain. Once acquired, this capacity for self-harm enables the disconnected, burdensome individual to take his or her own life.

These factors reliably predict suicide, but they seem not to apply in the case of suicide bombers, who often have families and loved ones whom they believe they will serve and even honor by their self-sacrifice. When they are backed by a terrorist organization, such as Al Qaida or ISIS, these bombers frequently leave their families with a financial legacy matched only by the social status they acquire by their act. And yet I would hesitate to interpret these acquisitions as signs of “alleviated burdensomeness,” as if the bombers felt they were compensating for the burden they feel they are to their families by earning the spoils of martyrdom. I have seen no evidence yet that the people who commit these acts of terrorism feel the despair that typically characterizes the suicidal person who feels like a disconnected burden. The factors from Joiner’s suicide model don’t seem to translate well to the case of suicide bombers.

Perhaps a better parallel would be to think of soldiers in battle when they charge the enemy lines to save their comrades, or volunteer for what everyone recognizes as a “suicide mission.” These are missions with a purpose, but with very poor odds of coming out alive. Those who sign up for such missions aren’t desperate or disconnected. Their goal is not to harm themselves, but they risk their lives knowing that death is their most likely end nonetheless.

We don’t call what these soldiers do for their friends “suicide,” and the factors that predict suicide, once again, don’t seem to line up well with these self-sacrificial acts. I wonder, then, if it is misleading to call what was done in Brussels this week a “suicide bombing.” I wonder if this sort of label creates confusion and misunderstanding, leading us to misinterpret the actions of men who are not gripped by despondency, but who are charged with a sense of urgency, compelled by a calling to give their very lives in the service of something they see as bigger than themselves.

I don’t mean for a moment to honor these terrorists or to paint what they are doing as admirable or noble. People who blow up civilians to make a point are cowards and criminals. I mean to suggest, rather, that we might better understand, and perhaps even come to predict, their radical, extremist behavior if we stop thinking of their actions as suicides. Not all acts of self-sacrifice that lead to death are instances of suicide. Just ask the billions of Christians around the world who this week mark the day when, two millennia ago, someone sacrificed His life for their souls, not out of a sense of despair, but out of a sense of holy calling. These bombers see their calling as equally holy. We must understand that if we want to have a prayer of beating them.

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AuthorRyan Brown