By Dr David Laing Dawson
After the Manchester bombing I read some articles in which the authors despaired of ever understanding any suicide bomber, any killer of “innocent children”. (I don’t know why we need the modifier ‘innocent’ in front of the word ‘children’, other than to imply there might be some not-so-innocent children it would be all right to kill.)
I often write to understand, a way of thinking things through carefully and with a degree of logic, using what we all know about these events and what we know about human behaviour. The following is what I arrived at. I do not know if this helps in any way, but here it is:
What are the layers of the pyramid that lead to an act of terror, especially an act of suicide terror, whether the weapon be a truck, a gun, or a bomb?
A mind experiment reveals the foundation of the pyramid: Imagine a group of 18 year-old boys (make that 16 to 23 years old if you will) being taken by their teacher to a small museum filled with artifacts. Once there the teacher tells the boys they have two choices. They can choose an artifact and the culture surrounding that artifact, spend the entire day studying it, and write a five page essay about it in the evening to be handed in the next day – or – they can each take up one of these baseball bats and spend an hour smashing the artifacts and then go for a beer in the nearest pub.
If need be we can refine this experiment by removing one or two of the most successful young men (academic, social, sexual, vocational) and by having the teacher demonstrate use of the bat on one of the artifacts.
I am not betting on the survival of the artifacts.
There is a developmental phase in the lives of young men when most experience some anger. Most put at least one fist hole in the dry wall before this passes. They are now quite suddenly responsible for their own futures; they are faced with years of unrewarding industry; it is now up to them to plan and organize and work if they are to eat, sleep under a roof, own a car, win the mating contest. And they must do this while watching it, seemingly, come so easily to others.
And this is new to homo sapiens – this span of adolescence reaching into the mid twenties. Until these last few generations most 16 to 23 year old boys were quickly embedded into a life of work, survival, training, routine. Just this morning there was recognition of this in the local paper with a proposal that boys in care be supported until age 25.
In his immature and random use of language Donald Trump may have actually been partially accurate when he recently called the Manchester bombers “losers”. I think he meant it as a school yard epithet with the modifier “evil” added, but within that pyramid of angry young men mentioned above, some are successful, some are struggling, and some perceive themselves as unjustly losing in the academic, social, vocational, sexual competitions.
So on this second level of the pyramid we find angry young men who perceive themselves as losing, unjustly losing.
We have to assume family has an influence here, though it seems suicide bombers are the progeny of both extremist angry fathers, and of fathers who are moderate in their religious beliefs. But we also know that the two psychological states by which boys react to their fathers is by either (sometimes both) imitation or opposition. Family then provides a third level of influence, though not necessarily as direct promulgation of extremist views.
But these are boys looking for direction, seeking answers for their disappointments and rage. They are also seeking simple answers to reduce their existential anxiety. So they easily fall prey to mesmerizing leaders, gurus, exhortations to violence. This can be an Imam at the local mosque, or a Youtube video or an extremist or racist website. The general source of their distress and their failures is made clear to them. This is the fourth level, a powerful influence in the form of an older man, a guru, a man with explanations and answers. A man, or group, who can point this angry and failing young man to a cause for his dissatisfaction and disaffection.
But this must be combined with some social isolation, a retreat from social influences that would otherwise undermine or counter the influences of the newly acquired “teacher”. And most friends or acquaintances interviewed after a suicide attack report something like, “He was always a little quiet, but I haven’t seen him for the last five or six months. He stopped coming to our….” And some do report a change of behavior such as an angry confrontation at the Mosque before they stop coming or are banished.
So now we have a fifth level: withdrawal from alternative social forces.
There would be a division at this point in the development: Those who end up being called a “lone wolf” because they act alone, and those who become part of a network.
The former, the lone wolf, is truly suicidal, and probably suffers from, by now, a psychotic depression (depressed and delusional). This person would have been in trouble before, perhaps summarily discharged, fired, or known to mental health services and local police. His attack will be one of rage with suicidal intent. The creed of groups like ISIS or the white supremacists simply give this person a final excuse and a sheen of righteousness. His weapon will be whatever is available to him. His target may be personally symbolic to him: People enjoying and celebrating when he cannot. Women who have spurned him. Gays who enticed him. A corporation that fired him. An army that excluded him. The group that gives him that “sheen of righteousness” could be white supremacists, fascists, extreme Islam, anti-Semites, or even, today, talk radio and Donald Trump.
The latter, the suicide bomber who uses a more sophisticated weapon crafted by others in a network, is the dupe. He is the youngest, weakest, of the group. He has been gradually pressured and convinced to carry this out. Though he may be a believer in the creed, and though he may also believe in the rewards of martyrdom promised, he is really doing this to please, to not disappoint his cult leaders and be cast out. These leaders may include an older brother, an uncle, a father. Or they are strangers who have become his family. To retain his position with them, at least in his imagination, he must carry out the act. They are the ones with the political agenda and the level of sociopathy required to inure them to the consequences.