Over and over again, people have watched the CCTV footage – a man, bent due to the heavy backpack he is carrying, walking past some beggars. His path crosses that of a young man and most probably his daughter……..and fleetingly, the man with the backpack moves the little girl away and walks on. That man [...]


Looking at what makes suicide bombers tick

They would have deep-rooted psychological scars, says Prof. Raveen Hanwella

Over and over again, people have watched the CCTV footage – a man, bent due to the heavy backpack he is carrying, walking past some beggars. His path crosses that of a young man and most probably his daughter……..and fleetingly, the man with the backpack moves the little girl away and walks on.

Prof. Raveen Hanwella

That man was the dealer of death – the suicide-bomber of Katuwapitiya.

The villagers of Katuwapitiya do not know who that father and daughter are. But they are thankful that they escaped death by a whisker and tell the Sunday Times that most probably the suicide-bomber moved the girl away to prevent the bomb going off in an area without many people.

What makes a human being not only kill hundreds of others but also take his/her own life against the natural order of things, the instinctive preservation of one’s own life?

There are two schools of thought, points out Consultant Psychiatrist attached to the National Hospital of Sri Lanka, Prof. Raveen Hanwella, who is also Chair-Professor of Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo when we ask him.

Some believe that suicide-bombers have deep psychological scars, may be from childhood, while others scoff at this idea, it is learnt.

Explaining that usually normal human beings will not take their own lives, as self-preservation kicks in, Prof. Hanwella says that such actions go against normal human or animal behaviour. Even though people who are mentally ill may take their own lives if not treated for the underlying causes, no animal will ever take its own life.

Referring to the common misconception that lemmings (small rodents) commit suicide en masse by jumping off cliffs, Prof. Hanwella says that this is not the case. This myth was propagated by a movie. However, the migratory behaviour of lemmings is such that if they come across a river during their movements, they will jump in and swim to the other side. In the process, some of them may drown, but they are certainly not taking their own lives.

As such, suicidal tendencies are “unique” to humans and commonly thought to come about in humans with mental illness, reiterates Prof. Hanwella.

So, are suicide-bombers different to those suffering from mental illnesses such as severe depression?

Chilling CCTV image: The suicide-bomber of Katuwapitiya

Pointing out that not many studies have been carried out on suicide bombers as they would be no more after the attacks, he cites Criminology Professor, Adam Lankford, who had analysed mass shooters in America before writing the book ‘The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters and Other Self-Destructive Killers’. Prof. Lankford based in the United States of America has interviewed many potential suicide-bombers who had failed in their so-called missions.

All these studies, of course, are superficial, says Prof. Hanwella, reiterating that they have shown that although suicide bombers seem “normal”, they have undergone some childhood trauma. There have been psychological issues which are made use of or exploited by their ‘masters’ or ‘handlers’ to get them to carry out the deadly tasks.

If people say that suicide bombers are doing something “purely for a cause” that would not be the whole picture. A closer examination of their lives would reveal psychological vulnerabilities, according to Prof. Hanwella.

“There is a myth that such suicide-bombers are bereft of psychological issues and superficially, they may seem well-integrated into society and happy (the suicide-bombers in Easter Sunday attacks seemed to come from ‘good’ families and were well-educated), but dig a little deep and there would be psychological scars which include a deep sense of injustice and the feeling that they have not been given their due place. These are the feelings which are exploited, making them vulnerable to glorification in any form,” he says.

Pointing out that the glorification through poems and songs, they believe, will come after the suicide bombings and this, in turn, will be used to motivate and groom the next batch, Prof. Hanwella explains how in the ‘end phase’ before the suicide-bombing, the person would be kept isolated, having only the company of fellow suicide-bombers. When there is no contact with normal life, the suicide-bombers’ sense of reality would get clouded.

Next, this Psychiatrist focuses on the different kinds of suicide-bombers.

The suicide-bombers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Hamas were not driven by an ideology, but by a cause. Their cause was to gain a separate state due to the feeling that they had been deprived, repressed, oppressed, had suffered or even lost someone. This would have resulted in a deep sense of anger and need for revenge against the so-called ‘enemy’.

They would be ready to get back at everyone and anyone, becoming easy targets for recruiters, with the promise that their motivation for self-destruction would help them to find a special place in a bigger organisation.

They would cease to be individuals and lose their right to be critical, question or debate and become pawns in unbelievable actions. While alive, suicide-bombers would be accorded a special status and there would be no way out for them, they would not be able to back out.

A classic example, according to Prof. Hanwella, was the mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, in Guyana, South America, on November 18, 1978, of the members of the California-based People’s Temple cult led by Jim Jones. More than 900 including about 300 below 17 died in this tragedy. This commune lived in isolation and had absolute belief in their leader. After giving a deadly drink to their young, the adults too swallowed fruit juice laced with cyanide.

There are also others who would be coerced into becoming suicide-bombers on the assurance that their families would be paid large amounts of money as a reward.

Currently, Islam seems to be made the scapegoat for a different wave of suicide-bombings. Some Madrasas spewing out dangerous narrow views, are taking religion to the extreme.

While a majority of the suicide-bombers are male, there is a minority who are female. They seem to be resorting to the unbelievable act of killing their own children for a so-called ‘greater cause’.

Both male and female suicide-bombers have been reduced to the level of non-humans and as such lack the empathy that humans have for others, adds Prof. Hanwella.

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