What Motivates Suicide Bombers in China?

The upcoming issue of The New Republic has a long review by David Bromwich of two books about suicide terrorism: Terry Eagleton’s Holy Terror (Oxford U. Press, 2005) and Robert Pape’s Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005).

The motives for suicide terror may be roughly divided into (1) religious fulfillment; (2) revenge; (3) founding a state; and (4) resistance to occupation. Holy Terror, when one looks at the details, is concerned rather narrowly with (1) and (2). Dying to Win suggests that the terrorism of the past two decades, and especially the suicide bombings, has emerged saliently as instances of (4), with (3) often a discernible secondary motive. (1) and (2) in Pape’s view are possible and always exacerbating causes, but as he reads the evidence, they have not excited vengeful or ecstatic persons to the length of killing others by killing themselves.

Meanwhile, the January 2006 issue of Scientific American has a column by Michael Shermer (“Mr. Skeptic“) about how to counter what he calls “murdercide” (ugh!).

The belief that suicide bombers are poor, uneducated, disaffected or disturbed is contradicted by science. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, found in a study of 400 Al Qaeda members that three quarters of his sample came from the upper or middle class. Moreover, he noted, “the vast majority–90 percent–came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.” Nor were they sans employment and familial duties. “Far from having no family or job responsibilities, 73 percent were married and the vast majority had children…. Three quarters were professionals or semiprofessionals. They are engineers, architects and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion.” …

One method to attenuate murdercide, then, is to target dangerous groups that influence individuals, such as Al Qaeda. Another method, says Princeton University economist Alan B. Krueger, is to increase the civil liberties of the countries that breed terrorist groups. In an analysis of State Department data on terrorism, Krueger discovered that “countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which have spawned relatively many terrorists, are economically well off yet lacking in civil liberties. Poor countries with a tradition of protecting civil liberties are unlikely to spawn suicide terrorists. Evidently, the freedom to assemble and protest peacefully without interference from the government goes a long way to providing an alternative to terrorism.”

The recent spate of suicide bombings in China seems to underline Mr. Skeptic’s point about despair in the face of oppressive and unresponsive governments.

Discontented or disturbed attackers in China have used mining explosives or fertilizer devices in previous bombings.

In August, a farmer with lung cancer set off a bomb on a bus in Fuzhou in southeastern Fujian province, wounding 31 people, and in July a murder suspect set off a bomb in a shopping mall in northeastern China, injuring 47 people.

A man set off a bomb on a bus in the western Xinjiang region in January 2005, killing 11 people.

On Saturday, Xinhua reported an explosion in a coal mine in Xinjiang in November was set off deliberately in the Beitaishan Coal Mine, killing 11 people.

Perhaps there are other bombings we haven’t heard about, and religious nationalism cannot be ruled out in the case of Xinjiang (or East Turkestan), but it seems that suicide bombing in China is driven as much by individuals bent on revenge as by religion, nationalism, or occupation. Some of these Chinese suicide bombers seem to be aiming their Propaganda of the Deed at international news media in order to exact personal revenge on their otherwise unresponsive government–and, of course, on many of its innocent citizens.

UPDATE: It’s not even clear how many of these bombings are suicidal. Here’s a crime report from 4 January.

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese police have detained the suspected architect of a bus bombing designed to kill his wife and in which 11 people died, Xinhua news agency said on Wednesday.

The suspect was believed to have given a man from his hometown explosives to plant on the long-distance bus in Yanling county, central Henan province, and to have killed the man after the attack to cover his tracks, Xinhua said.

The December 23 blast triggered a fire that swept through the bus, killing 11 passengers and seriously injuring three, the report said. It did not say if the man’s wife was on the bus or whether or not she survived.

Investigators believed the suspect wanted to get rid of his wife so he could marry his mistress, the report said.

This perp sounds like a nasty piece of work, no matter who else he might want to blame for his criminality.

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