Contemporary suicide terrorists from the Middle East are publicly deemed crazed cowards bent on senseless destruction who thrive in poverty and ignorance. Recent research indicates they have no appreciable psychopathology and are as educated and economically well-off as surrounding populations. A first line of defense is to get the communities from which suicide attackers stem to stop the attacks by learning how to minimize the receptivity of mostly ordinary people to recruiting organizations.

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“Patterns of global terrorism” (U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, May 2002); available at “The U.S. Governmenthas employed this definition of terrorism for statistical and analytical purposes since 1983.”
U.S. Code Congress. Admin. News, 98th Congress, 2nd Session, v. 2, par. 3077, 98 STAT. (19 October 1984).
Until 1983, official U.S. positions on “terror” followed the term's common meaning in use since the French Revolution, referring to state-sponsored terror. For example, under “sources relating to Operation Enduring Freedom and the struggle against terrorism,” the U.S. Navy's Web guide on terrorism regularly links to Department of Defense articles on Iraq (
The recent Guatemalan truth commission report singled out the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), now at Fort Benning, Georgia, for counterinsurgency training that “had a significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed conflict.” A 1998 human rights report released by the Guatemala Archdiocese Human Rights Office also linked SOA graduates in Guatemala's military intelligence (D-2, G-2) to a civilian-targeted campaign of kidnappings, torture, and murder that left tens of thousands dead. References available online through Network Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), “U.S. Army School of the Americas cited in Guatemalan Truth Commission Report,” 17 July 2001; available at htm.
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A precipitating event was the exiling of 418 Palestinians suspected of affiliation with Hamas (18 December 1992), the first mass expulsion of Arabs from Palestine since 1948.
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Compare this statement with that of Hamas leader Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Rantisi, Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), 25 April 2002.
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B. Lewis, What Went Wrong (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 2002). The notion of a distinct religious authority, or clergy, was traditionally alien to Islam. The de facto modern clergy recognized by Islamic suicide attackers includes mullahs of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the 19th-century administrative office of ayatollah in Iran and the former Ottoman office of State Attorney, or mufti (e.g., in Palestine, Syria, and Arabia). Many in this “clergy” also oppose suicide bombing.
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Unlike people willing to blow themselves up, for frontline soldiers in an apparently hopeless battle, there usually remains hope for survival [
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]. The distance between no hope and some (however small) is infinite, which represents the ultimate measure of devotion that religions typically uphold as ideal. While commitment to die for nonkin cannot be rendered within standard theories of Expected Utility, there are moves theorists attempt, such as invoking “infinite utility.” Using “infinite utility” to patch theories of rationality creates holes elsewhere in the system. Thus, expected utilities are usually weighted averages, which has scant sense when one term is infinite. The deeper point is that notions of maximization of anticipated benefits cannot account for such behaviors, and ad hoc moves to maintain rational utility at all costs result in a concept of rationality or utility doing little explanatory work. In sum, reliance on rational-choice theories may not be the best way to understand and try to stop suicide terrorism.
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“White Paper—The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests,” (Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore, 9 January 2003); available at Recruitment and indoctrination into Jemaah Islamiyah are similar in other radical Islamic groups: “The first stage … involved religious classes organised for a general mass… . The second stage … involved identifying those who were captivated enough to find out more about the plight of Muslims in other regions. [JI spiritual leader] Ibrahim Maidan identified potential members from those who were curious enough to remain after classes to enquire further. He engaged those students' interest and compassion and finally invited those he deemed suitable to join JI. This recruitment process would usually take about 18 months. The few who were selected as members were made to feel a strong sense of exclusivity and self esteem … a strong sense of in-group superiority.”
In much the same way, the pornography, fast food, or soft drink industries manipulate innate desires for naturally scarce commodities like sexual mates, fatty foods, and sugar to ends that reduce personal fitness but benefit the manipulating institution. [S. Atran, In Gods We Trust (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 2002)].
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One possibility is to offer and guarantee a clear resolution of “final status” acceptable to majorities of Israelis and Palestinians. Without clear resolution of final status before implementation of “confidence building” measures, with an understanding by all parties of what to expect in the end, it is likely that doubts about ultimate intentions will undermine any interim accord—as in every case since 1948. [
Atran S., Politics and Society 18, 481 (1990)].
N. Chomsky, 9-11 (Seven Stories Press, New York, 2001).
Thanks to D. Medin, N. Chomsky, R. Gonzalez, M. Bazerman, R. Nisbett, and reviewers.
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Volume 299 | Issue 5612
7 March 2003

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Scott Atran
CNRS–Institut Jean Nicod, 1 bis Avenue Lowendal, 75007 Paris, France, and Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48106–1248, USA. E-mail: [email protected]

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