Wednesday, January 9, 2008
One of the puzzling contradictions of suicide bombings is that, despite the common wisdom linking it to poverty and economic development, the actual bombers themselves are disproportionately middle class. In a fascinating essay about the dynamics of face-to-face violence over at Foreign Policy, sociologist Randall Collins explains why that is:
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 one’s clothing until the target is so close that massive damage is certain.
Richard Posner adds, in a rebuttal to a Gary Becker premise that terrorism is susceptible to economic development, that terrorism is grievance-driven, and that the grievances are predominantly political rather than economic. Which makes it the domain of the intelligentsia, who according to Posner, "...have the leisure and the education to think big thoughts, like overthrowing a government, which rarely brings material improvements." He also notes that terrorist operations demand a very small number of highly reliable and semi-skilled operatives, as opposed to the cannon fodder of conventional militaries, which leads to targeted recruiting.
Combine that with the historic alienation of the middle class (especially in the third world), throw in a pinch of nostalgia for a lost golden age of moral clarity and purity, and you've got a pretty lethal cocktail.