Suicide Bombers: Warriors of the Middle Class

We tend to imagine suicide bombers as hardened, bloodthirsty killers. But most people aren’t nearly as ready to commit violence as you think. It’s actually the quiet, docile members of the middle class who make the best human explosive devices. And that’s what makes this weapon of mass murder so hard to stop.

JOHN MOORE/Getty ImagesDanger close: Suicide bombers succeed precisely because we rarely see them coming.

Theres a simple reason that since the 1980s the world has witnessed thousands of suicide bombings: Its the most efficient form of violence at close range. The spread of this seemingly unstoppable technique has made political violence much more potent by enlisting an unlikely cadre of perpetratorsthe middle class.

The fact that suicide bombers are usually mild-mannered members of the middle class seems counterintuitive. After all, the middle class tend to be well-educated, well-behaved, good family membersnothing like the bloodthirsty tough guys or criminals we imagine when we think of terrorists. They bear little resemblance to English football hooligans or rabble-rousers. No other form of violence has a higher proportion of females than suicide bombers, even though females are usually more conformist than males.

Why is this so? I suggest it is because suicide bombing is the easiest form of violence for conventional middle-class people to carry out, if they decide to commit violence at all.

To grasp the point, we need to first dismiss the myth that it is easy for someone to act violently. If someone has a sufficiently strong grievance, the thinking goes, all the person needs to do is get hold of a weapon and he or she will start killing people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sociologists in World War II found that only 15 to 25 percent of frontline soldiers were actually firing their guns. Later training methods have raised the firing rate somewhat, but the shooting is almost always very inaccurate. Firing a gun on a range is quite different from shooting a person. My own research on milder forms of violence, with fists and feet and clubs, shows that most angry confrontations end in a standoff, where participants find an excuse to back down.

A second common myth is that violent people are violent, in part, because they grow up in a milieu that lacks social controls through family and school, and are exposed to groups which encourage a code of violence, whether for crime or self-respect. Again this assumes that when it gets to the sticking point, it is easy to be violent. But close studies of gang confrontations and holdups show that criminals are no more comfortable with violence than soldiers or cops; in fact, they are even worse at it. Statistically, the average gang member is rarely violent; gangsters spend most of their time talking tough. When they do pull the trigger, it is usually wildly, and if someone is hit, it is often an innocent bystander, not the target of their rage.

The pattern of evidence is clear: Humans are not good at face-to-face violence. We are good at expressing emotions and we can work up an extensive litany of our grievances, but it does not follow that the final step into violence is at all easy to take. The image of the human being on a hair trigger, awaiting only a motive to be violent, runs contrary to what we know about the microsociology of face-to-face interaction. Individuals get caught up in a common mood and rhythm; whether they like each other or not, they tend to conform to the conventions of the situation. It is more difficult to disagree with someone in conversation than to agree with someone. Cheering in crowds lasts longer than booing. This propensity to get along is probably hard-wired into our nervous and emotional systemswhich explains why violent conflict is so difficult when the other person is standing in front of you.

For violence to be successful, it must find a pathway around these barriers. Three are most common. The first, and easiest, is to carry out violence from a distance, such as dropping bombs from planes or firing artillery over the horizon. This avoids the face of the enemy entirely.

If the enemy must be faced, the second and third methods come into play. Number two involves ganging up on an isolated and essentially unresisting victim. Rioters (and riot-control forces) do their damage chiefly when a cluster of four or more beats on a single fallen opponent. Gangs, like bullies, are effective mainly when they have a similar ratio of dominance. Police are most likely to commit violence when they greatly outnumber the suspect. In military combat, massacres occur when the enemy has suddenly gone passive, emotionally shocked and incapable of resisting. In this type of violence, emotional dominance is even more important than physical dominance. This second pathway is a very ugly one, although it is probably the most common form of violence; on a small scale, it is the chief pathway to domestic abuse.

The third pathway, in contrast, is the idealized, honorable form of violence: a staged fair fight. Here the fighters are chosen to be evenly matched. They fight according to a code of rules and within a group that regards itself as having honor: whether duelists in the early modern era, high school tough guys on the playground, or athletes boiling over at an opponent during a game. Such fights always have an audience, which monitors the rules (however violent they may be). The crowd typically supports the fight and keeps the fighters going for the requisite amount of time. From the point of view of the fighter, the crowd helps overcome confrontational tension because the fighters attention is more on the crowd than on the antagonism of the opponent.

But suicide bombers are different. They usually face their victims alone. They neither threaten their enemies nor try to make them break down emotionally. The secret of their tactic is not to perform it as violence at all, until the very last second when they detonate the bomb. The tactical advantage of the suicide bomber is to approach as if nothing unusual were happening. There is no confrontational tension because the bomber acts as if there is no confrontation.

Clandestine, confrontation-avoiding violence such as suicide bombing is a fourth pathway around confrontational tension. It succeeds only because the attacker is good at pretending that he or she is not threatening at all. People accustomed to the typical macho forms of violence are not good at this; gang members would make lousy suicide bombers. But mild-mannered middle-class people are ideal for it. Since they are not confrontational by nature, they do not have to control a blustering or threatening demeanor that would warn their victims. Self-directed introverts, they do not need to hear cheering as they stalk their prey. Middle-class culture is especially accommodative, adept at maintaining a smooth surface of conventionality. Whatever our private feelings, we learn not to express them on the job, in social situations, or in public. This is good training for carrying a bomb under ones clothing until the target is so close that massive damage is certain.

Suicide bombing, in other words, is not just a matter of motivation; it is primarily a matter of technique. Violent political movements may embrace it for ideological purposes, but they use it mainly for a very simple reason: It works.

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