The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.
I first met Nichole Argo and Omar Amanat at a private dinner organized to introduce Argo’s groundbreaking study on human bombs to a small group of influential philanthropists. I was there as a guest of a guest. What Argo proposed held us spellbound. Her then-boyfriend had emigrated to Israel. He was in a café on his cell phone with her when a bomb exploded. Then another bomb went off. Argo decided then and there to discover why human beings would detonate themselves in order to kill others.
A Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s Center for International Studies, Argo was well equipped for the task. Long interested in ethnic mobilization and violence, Argo has lived and worked in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Rwanda. After her own personal crisis she spent two years in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as a researcher for Stanford’s Preventive Defense Project, interviewing families and friends of suicide bombers as well as preempted bombers in prison. The results of her investigation have been published as “Human Bombs: Rethinking Religion and Terror” as part of MIT’s Audit of the Conventional Wisdom series. It will in due time become a book.
Because of Omar Amanat’s incisive queries at the dinner that night, I thought that he was a member of a think tank. I would subsequently discover that, after almost losing his own life as well as that of his entire staff at the World Trade Center on 9/11, he had become his own think tank. Argo and Amanat’s discussion below adds much to the analysis of why people become human bombs, how Americans think about them, and how they think about us.
Omar Amanat How does a nice girl from Minnesota end up interviewing suicide bombers in the Middle East?
Nichole Argo My decision to work in conflict resolution and eventually go to the Middle East was set up by two life experiences. The first was of my father, or rather, lack of him. He was a Vietnam War veteran who spent much of his time homeless. For a few months, when I was ten years old, he called my brother and me every now and then. He said “I love you” easily. He was funny and supportive. But then we lost him again. I didn’t meet him until I was 20. I think children need to have explanations for why a parent isn’t around—they need to refute this whisper in their head that says the absent parent doesn’t want them. My answer was that somehow war kept him away. So at a very young age I was asking questions about war and what it does to people. I read children’s war books like A Light In The Forest, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Red Badge of Courage. They helped me to imagine fighting and hiding in jungles, being injured or losing my unit, the act of killing or dying. I thought hard about what it would feel like to live with trauma afterward. When I grew up, I chose to study war. Why and how do people kill? What will we sacrifice for? And what—for both victims and perpetrators—are the repercussions?
But I would never have studied human bombs had it not been for my boyfriend in graduate school. It was 2000, and we used to stay up late doing statistics homework. That fall, we were receiving news headlines that a suicide bomber had just hit Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv, or wherever. He would drop everything and go online to look for the victims’ names, photos, and biographies. These evenings became a recurring pattern, and it refocused his world. Over time I saw his goals change from working on Wall Street to wanting to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) or at least go to Israel to support his people. And that is what he did. It was a mirror of the story you hear in the Islamic sphere, of European Muslims going to Iraq or Afghanistan. He moved to Israel to learn Hebrew, to get in touch with distant relatives, and to think about joining the IDF. One day, as we were talking on the phone, the café next to him exploded. He dropped the phone. When he picked it up again, another bomb went off. I wasn’t able to get him back on the phone. I said to myself, If I lose him, I am going there. It turns out he survived, and then joined the army. But I still went. So that’s how I came to study human bombs.
OA How did you start? And what did you discover along the way that surprised you?
NA In the first six months, I did what everybody does: I read all the literature, interviewed the experts, spoke to security officials and tried to get them to divulge pieces of information that they had never told anybody else. During that time in Israel, I experienced being part of victimized Israeli society: the radio would report that a bomber was loose in Jerusalem, and I’d hunker down like everybody else. But I was interviewing preempted bombers in prisons and traveling back and forth to the West Bank, so I was exposed to the other side, too.
A prisoner who was helping me—held for 25 years for being an affiliate of a secular terrorist organization that had kidnapped and murdered an Israeli soldier in the early ’70s—invited me to visit his dear friend in Gaza. I did. I ended up living there awhile, and started ethnographic research.
OA What do you mean by ethnographic research?
NA I collected very detailed interviews with over 70 families of bombers, and more than 200 non-bomber families from similar and different neighborhoods. The interviews start with normal questions about demographics and observations of the bomber in the last months of his life, and of the community following the bombing. But it engages families in four additional exercises, too. I asked families to draw their neighborhoods—houses, schools, mosques, roads, cemeteries, and so on. Each house is listed with the number of inhabitants, and I asked them to label each inhabitant with symbols that stand for istish’hadi (bomber), shuhada (innocent casualties), militant (defensive), i.e., community defense when the IDF enters the neighborhood), militant (offensive), collaborator, and prisoner. What you usually find is that most individuals have played different roles in the intifadas, becoming more or less violently involved depending on the situation.
The second exercise is to create a list of shuhada, or deaths, over the past 20 years. Each name on the list includes the date, location, and circumstance of the death (so we can verify it with death certificates). On one list is friends and family who might live anywhere in Palestine. The other list is community members. These exercises are fascinating to watch, because while people sense that death is a daily occurrence, it is another matter to put it to order on paper. I remember a small village where one family gathered around a table, eyes lit up, arguing about which deaths happened first, and the proper spelling of names. When the mother had first created the list, she had remembered five deaths. But after the family came together to remember, we had 23. Sure enough, all of them checked out with the morgue the next day.
A third exercise has the family create timelines of important events from the past 20 years and six years, respectively. The 20-year span seeks to incorporate events that were important to the life of the bomber—anything personal or political. The six-year timelines ask them to remember the progression of the second intifada as it has played out in their village or city—assassinations, lockdowns, arrests, invasions, closures, rebellion, the point of public support or not, periods of peace, and so on. I think sometimes that the actual drawing out of events helps subjects to make sense of the last six years. There is something in writing it down that enables one to see the relationships between events—for me, certainly, but also for them. It’s a four-hour interview, and I have yet to do one where tears were not involved. Usually good tears. One mother said to me, “We can’t believe you take an interest in our lives.”
The last exercise asks people to chart out how much time in a given day they spend in different places—mosque, market, club, school, and so on. It aims to get at how much face-to-face contact they have with family, friends, and community members.
A year and a half of living in Gaza and the West Bank and conducting these interviews absolutely changed the way I look at life. To live there, to see these community maps, is to understand the reality of life amid constant and random loss. The idea of control doesn’t exist—not over personal finance or a day’s travel, and not over life either.
On the other hand, for Palestinians, it’s always been like this. In the middle of one interview, I asked the elderly father of a bomber what sorts of things the IDF did when it entered the village. The father said to me, “Sometimes they trick us by switching our sugar with salt.” I’d never heard that one before. But the mother interrupted, “No, now he’s thinking about the British.” For many Palestinians, a narrative of loss and occupation is all they have ever known.
I think when you’re facing something larger than you, something you cannot defeat, there is a different calculus for fighting. Rather than “I’ll fight to win,” a sort of rational cost-benefit strategy, the logic is moral-emotional: “I’ll fight because it is the right thing to do; because what they are doing is wrong; because I cannot live with myself if I accept their actions.” Resistance isn’t simply strategic—at least not at the level of the individual. It’s also expressive. And once you get to that moral-emotional level, you’re dealing with sacred values—values that are immune to tradeoffs, costs, or rewards. They motivate irrespective of outcome. The reward is that you do it, not what you achieve from it.
This seems to be the hardest thing for the West to learn. When we see 100-percent commitment—despite the fact that we give Purple Hearts for such commitment in our own militaries—we assume the militant is an irrational religious fanatic. But that view is wrong: the data show that most jihadis did not come to the jihad through religion, or through indoctrination. They come through family and friends. The motivation is communal.
Okay, that’s a lot about me. Now your turn.
OA Wait, that’s not all. If all Palestinians feel like this, why aren’t they all donning bombs?
NA Right. My study asks why some cities in Palestine generate more suicide bombers than others. I did interviews in two cities, Nablus and Ramallah. Nablus has produced nearly 25 percent of Palestinian bombers, while Ramallah is responsible for 1.5 percent. Both have experienced a lot of grievance and both have capable terror organizations; what differs is community structure—the density of close social bonds between people.
Emotion matters in that it pushes people to take a stand, to make sacrifices, and to take some risks. But emotion alone is not enough to get people to risk their lives, or donate them for the cause. Instead, it’s emotion and a particular social situation—where decisions to act are made and the individuals within the group are motivated to move forward as much for each other as for the higher purpose. It’s the same with our own military, which is divided for this reason into units of eight. Terror groups can cultivate these sorts of groups, but in Palestine they don’t have to. The dense face-to-face contact of friends and family, made more intense on a daily basis by lockdown and continued casualties, generates the conviction on its own. In my interviews with 15 bombers, eight volunteered for their missions (many were members of the same soccer team); about half of them were recruited by family members.
In Nablus, social bonds are stronger, more dense and overlapping than in Ramallah. That means people would feel more obligation to act on the emotions common to all Palestinians.
Okay, now to you.
OA No, no, this is so interesting.
NA But so is what you’re about to say. How did you become interested in relations between Muslims and the West?
OA I feel particularly suited to studying this issue because I was born and raised in an area of the world filled with ethnic tension and religious conflict: Queens, New York. (laughter) In fact, 35 years ago, my mother received a USAID [Agency of International Development] scholarship to study at the American University of Beirut, where she met my father. They both studied at the university, and they fell in love and then came here to Columbia University. I grew up here as an athlete—captain of my football team, baseball team, basketball team—a real all-American.
OA Yes, it’s not something I admit much in academic circles, but the point is that I felt as American as apple pie. When I got out of school, I lived the myth of Horatio Alger, and my company was on the cover of Fortune magazine because it processed over ten percent of Nasdaq’s daily trading volume. I had achieved what I thought was the pinnacle of success in this proud techno-capitalist country. Then, having lived the American dream, I walked right into the American nightmare. On September 11 at 8:30 AM, I was on my way to give a speech at Windows on the World—
NA At the Trade Center?
OA At the top of the World Trade Center. But I got a call from the head of the Harlem Youth Development Foundation, Dr. Enid Gort, who said, “I need you for a radio interview; do you mind delaying your schedule by ten or 15 minutes?” I said fine. I would have otherwise been there to hear my dear friend Scott Saber speak at 9:00 AM. Scott was there and didn’t make it out, but luckily my 60 employees did by walking down a flight of stairs for an hour and ten minutes. Two minutes after they got out, the first building collapsed. After that, I stopped asking myself questions like, “What is the value of my stock worth?” and started asking more fundamental questions of life and death. I was determined to find out in particular what could have possessed these 19 people, who claimed to share the same faith I have, to commit these acts. They weren’t Palestinians; they did not live in refugee camps. They didn’t have those personal, anecdotal stories of being chased by IDF soldiers. So what would have motivated these people? I didn’t understand. So I did as much research as I could. I didn’t speak to government officials, but—
NA It’s probably better.
OA Yeah, right. But I read, and I spoke to individuals, like Lee Hamilton, the vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission—he’s probably the closest thing to a government official that I spoke to. But when I heard a speech by George Bush and Rudy Giuliani, I came to the realization that more analysis was needed.
NA What did you learn?
OA Well, during a private reception I participated in, Bush and Giuliani were asked the simple but central question in the war against terror: “Why do they hate us?” One of them responded by saying, “These people hate us for our freedom, our plenty, and the fact that our women can wear bikinis on beaches.”
On the other side of the coin, a different popular response to this question was that this happens as the result of the explosive mix of poverty, illiteracy, and the failure of globalization to take hold in that region of the world: another tragic case of the haves versus the have-nots. However—and I confirmed this with Lee Hamilton—if you look at those 19 individuals, they weren’t poor, and they weren’t illiterate, so what was it? My analysis was incomplete. Even Lee Hamilton’s analysis was incomplete. If you read the 9/11 Commission report, it says something vague, like, “Their backgrounds were disparate, middle-class, some wealthy, some very educated; the one thing that they had in common, that we could tell, was that they had all experienced some form of humiliation in the West.”
NA Since then, it’s been shown that all of them were in Afghanistan at one point or another.
OA Wow. See, you learn something every day.
NA Hamilton didn’t know it either at that time.
OA He didn’t. That’s very interesting.
NA But your original intuition was right. Since 9/11, we have had bombers who have not suffered personally, and who have not been to conflict zones. These are the bombers of Madrid and Bali II. Perhaps even the London bombers—their connections to al Qaeda are still not clear. It’s not necessary to suffer personally to develop these convictions.
OA So let’s get back to you now.
NA Wait—while you dealt with your own losses after the World Trade Center was hit, you struck on this idea of “media effects.”
OA I spoke to Dr. Enid Gort, the woman who had inadvertently saved my life by delaying me 15 minutes on September 11 and who runs the Harlem Youth Development Foundation. I was asking her, with a lot of existential angst, “How could 19 people who share the same faith as me have committed these acts?” She and one other person turned me on to this theory by an author on black rage; and then I came across the work of Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard Medical School professor who also wrote on the subject; and Peter Berger, in particular, who had developed something called “plausibility theory.” This is the thesis that “members of minority groups derive more of their self-esteem from media images of people like themselves than they do from their own personal interactions with others.” The black rage articles ask the question, “Why did it take 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation for anti-governmental violence to spontaneously erupt in the African-American community in the ’60s?” They examined the notion that it was poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment. One other popular theory abounded then that blacks were simply inherently more violent than other races, which the Watts Riot report said at the time. Once these myths were debunked, the thesis formed that it was about “perceived humiliation.” Jessica Stern, who also wrote about this, said the one element that popped up most frequently in her six years of interviews with religious militants and suicide bombers wasn’t poverty or human rights abuses but the sense of perceived humiliation. Evelyn Lindner calls humiliation “the nuclear bomb of all emotions.” And so I became fascinated with the link between humiliation and violence and especially how media can be a mechanism to detonate that nuclear bomb of emotions. There is a lot more research to be done on this particular subject. You and I are coming at it from different angles, but actually arrive at very similar places.
NA It’s true. We’re both looking at the role of emotion—pedestrian social emotions, like esteem, that can motivate normal people to risk and violence under the right conditions. And media is the preeminent tool for telling that story today.
When I lived in Gaza, I stayed with a former PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) militant named Hisham. He had spent 17 years in prison, two of them taking care of the quadriplegic Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin. Since his release, he had only participated in communal defense, when the IDF came to Khan Yunis at night. Anyway, one of my interview questions dealt with the difference between the first and second intifada. Hisham was the first to tell me this, but it became a theme in the interviews. He said, “The difference between the first intifada and the second is television. Before, I knew we were attacked here, or in a nearby camp, but the reality of the attacks everywhere else was not so clear. Now I cannot get away from Israel—the TV brings it into my living room. And you can’t turn the TV off. How could you live with yourself? You can’t ignore the problem—what are you doing to protect your people? We live with an internal struggle. Whether you choose to fight or not, every day is this internal struggle.”
In other words, television was a constant motivational impetus—a precursor to the group dynamics I spoke about earlier. When that emotional arousal is activated, it calls for some sort of response—cognitive, emotional, or behavioral. The social psychologist Brian Barber actually compared Bosnian Muslims at the outbreak of war in the Balkans to Palestinians in the first and second intifada. In sum, non-resisters had lower self-esteem and exhibited higher levels of anti-social behavior than resisters. Why? It seems that people need to feel some element of control over horrible situations—they need to feel they can do something pro-group. Whether it is political or military, constructive or destructive, may matter less.
Maybe this is why the US refuses to show images of the war in Iraq, or anywhere. Even the image of body bags is prohibited! So of course we are also not exposed to the coverage of al Jazeera, or the headlines and footage that is seen in the Arab and Muslim world. Americans might be shocked to view jihadi videotapes. Shocked because, though the message is propaganda, the footage is real—needless casualties, mosque desecration, and human indignities. Imagine if the victims were our families, our friends. Of course we would feel the need to do something, both in our heads and in our actions.
Maybe media can also help explain the radicalization of “self-starters”—the bombers with no ties to terror groups—in Madrid and Bali II. They have not experienced the “aggression” of formal occupation like in Iraq, Palestine, or Afghanistan, and many have not even lived under the oppressive regimes of the Middle East. In fact, 87 percent of the extremist Sunni network are immigrants or second-generation Muslims in Europe. But as plausibility theory would predict, they are more susceptible to feeling the reality of the oppression they see on TV. It may be the racial prejudice they feel at home in Europe, or the guilt they exhibit that they or their families left their homelands in times of strangled political need—but whatever the reason, the angst of these homelands becomes a primary part of their identity.
The Madrid bombers seem to have radicalized as a group of friends, really, who felt obligated to do something in response to the state of the world. Both groups met regularly to watch jihadi video footage “documenting” the aggression of Coalition forces in Iraq—bombings on civilian areas, mistreatment of women, unnecessary humiliation of Iraqis at checkpoints.
And this has been common to many bombers—from Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Madrid: they implicitly radicalized. Emotional arousal and beliefs about the enemy were consolidated amid family and friends. Nobody had to convince them it was right to target the citizens or military of Coalition forces—that was the “plausible” course of action based on the power structure as they viewed it. They sat in their living rooms watching television and saying, Well, what can we do? We need to do something. And perhaps because they engaged in that conversation, there, in a room with four people, they felt obligated, in essence, to behave true to their words, to answer their own question.
The point is, these guys were moved by what they viewed on TV. This gets directly at your own media project. Can you talk about it a bit?
OA I am commissioning Harvard’s School of Public Health to do a study examining the link between media and violence in conflict zones around the world, beginning with the Middle East.
Middle Easterners spend an average of 258 minutes per day in front of the television. Before 1995 there were only 15 terrestrial government-owned stations, and these mainly showed talking heads and government officials. Since 1995 more than 200 satellite stations have sprouted up, owned by a mix of public and private enterprises, and they began broadcasting images of violence, including images of Arabs under attack, à la al Jazeera [the first mainstream Arabic news station, launched in November 1996 with a multimillion-dollar grant from the Emir of Qatar], and so on.
To counter this I have launched a nonprofit media company and a for-profit film company. The mission of each is to leverage media to promote social change and finance films that have, as a component, messages that promote tolerance and coexistence among different races, cultures, and religions. Like The Cosby Show, if we can show images that do not correlate to the typical images that both sides of the divide are used to watching, we may be able to shift consciousness away from a basis in conflict toward a basis in respect and mutual appreciation.
Did you hear about the Gallup poll study that came out two months ago.
NA The one showing that Muslims in some areas believe that America could be a good force in their lives?
OA I believe it is a comprehensive study of the population of the world: the Gallup World poll. They plan to survey 95 percent of the world’s population over the next 100 years. They started last year, and in the Muslim world they questioned 850 million people in ten states from Morocco to Indonesia. They are trying to get an understanding of people’s likes, dislikes, attitudes, incomes, everything under the sun. One interesting question that they asked was, “What can the West do to improve relations with the Islamic world?” The conventional wisdom anticipated answers along one or more of the following lines: 1) stop supporting Israel; 2) get out of Iraq; 3) give us more aid and investment; and 4) stop supporting our dictators. But the most frequent response, given by 47 percent, was stated in one of two ways: 1) stop disrespecting our religion in your media; and 2) stop portraying us as if we were inferior. And this is before the crisis over the Muhammad cartoons printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last year. As Freud once said, “We are most violent when others offend what we hold most dear.” Here you have a religion of 1.3 billion people; some of whom value their religion above all else. But they aren’t necessarily the ones creating all the violence. Ironically, it’s more that they are identifying themselves with this group that is being denigrated. Even if they aren’t religious, they still have this sense of identification.
NA Right, it’s interesting. Americans tend to underestimate the importance of recognition and esteem. These two human needs are derived far more often from relational processes than relational outcomes. When protests claimed streets worldwide over the Danish cartoons, I kept thinking of laboratory studies where subjects played a game called “prisoners’ dilemma” while hooked up to an MRI machine. Subjects were told they are playing against another person, whom they would never meet, in another room. The stakes were low—mere pennies. The game, played in rounds, allows each person to “cooperate” or “defect.” The payoff structure is such that you benefit most to defect when the other cooperates (you get five cents), you get nothing if the other defects while you cooperate, you get very little if you both defect (one cent), and you get substantial gains if you both cooperate (three cents).
Here’s what happened: when Player 1 cooperated and Player 2 defected, the MRI showed activation in the prefrontal cortex, which seems to have everything to do with having been put down. An esteem artifact: Somebody has mistreated me. Player 1 satisfied that activation by defecting on Player 2 the next time—by punishing the other, even though, according to the cost structure, Player 1 would also lose out.
What does this mean? Well, outcomes mattered little here—the stakes were low. Players were responding to a process of being put down. We have an impulse to punish those who treat society poorly, or who treat us as individuals poorly. Even when the stakes are little, even if we have to pay to punish. Social psychologist Nico Frijda thinks we may actually be wired for this kind of impulse. In his view, revenge is a virtue, and evolutionarily rational—the idea is that if you punish the offender, they will feel your pain and won’t do it again. These words—in almost exact form—come up again and again in my interviews: “We wanted them to feel our pain.” Unfortunately, as the prisoners’ dilemma game shows, the tit-for-tat defection can become a negative equilibrium.
So yes, I think there is something going on when people respond to a Gallup poll by saying, “You disparage us and we don’t like it.” Americans think of themselves as entrepreneurs of freedom, justice, and democracy, but these descriptors do not resonate for people in most of the world. Gallup is capturing something like this—people feel disrespected by the US.
OA To me it’s a confirmation of my thesis that the global fault lines in the “war on terror” do not fall along ideological, economic, or political lines but on emotional perceptions of humiliation of members of a group, especially as perceived and exacerbated through the lens of mediated reality. As an American, even as a Muslim, I didn’t understand why people in that part of the world were reacting so violently over a cartoon. I just didn’t get it. But when I saw the data in the light of “perceived humiliation,” juxtaposed with what Freud said on the subject, it started to make more sense with my developing thesis, and I thought, “Well, perhaps I have a responsibility to continue the work to see if I can make an impact.”
NA I think you do have a reason to continue the work—it’s important.
OA So the question is, what does all this mean for how we combat terror?
NA If we combine our two approaches, a few things stand out and are worth testing. First, the West is wrong about what motivates people, including most terrorists, to political violence. As the data shows, terror is usually not about indoctrination, pathology, or desperation. So we need to reformulate our questions:
1) For what are normal individuals able to kill? A plausible answer is: their community, perceived to be under physical or even emotional threat. We need more attention on the role of emotions—like humiliation. Non-pathological emotions.
2) When does a person make costly sacrifices? Within a social structure—a terror cell, a military unit, a family, or group of friends—that continually regenerates conviction to a cause, a feeling of obligation to do something about it, and a sense of shame at the idea of letting one another down. Such social structures seem to form somewhat randomly; it would be nearly impossible to profile for them.
3) What is unique about the convictions that form in these social groups? They are not subject to cost-benefit calculations; they are sacred values. The individual’s act is more important than the outcome.
4) Lastly, what does all this mean for military and political operations? First, we need to let go of the assumption that if we “increase their pain,” they’ll quit. Deterrence won’t work. Second, under urban conditions of asymmetrical engagement, military missions almost inevitably entail civilian casualties. Military leaders must reconceptualize the effect that civilian casualties have on the populations surrounding the insurgency. They are frequently interpreted by the population as offensive, and this engenders an impulse to fight back. As one Palestinian told a reporter: “If we don’t fight, we will suffer. If we do fight, we will suffer, but so will they.”
Findings about the ways in which people acquire beliefs suggest that a war of ideas will mean nothing unless it resonates emotionally with our targets. Emotional resonance comes only when the values we promote reflect our role in the local realities on foreign ground.