Suicide Terrorism and Robert Pape

A few years ago I wrote a piece called ‘yes, americans can understand suicide bombers‘. I knew it would be inflammatory but it didn’t actually get around as much as some other pieces I’ve written. All I did in the article was pick out some choice quotes and sentiments by ‘Westerners’ (‘us’, in other words, not ‘them’) about how seeing one’s loved ones murdered leads to an overwhelming desire for revenge. I guess it was just a drop in the bucket of hundreds of thousands of words spilled on the topic by all kinds of informed and uniformed people. Still, even if the piece had little impact, the topic has remained of interest to me as I await more horrors in different parts of the world.

More recently Naomi Klein wrote a very nice piece on the topic (I’ve had a lot of respect for her for a lot of years, but I have to say I feel she’s just been getting better and better). Naomi was looking at how ‘our’ racism – the simple idea broadcast daily and loudly enough for those who care to see it that some lives are worth more than others – was very helpful to those who would recruit suicide terrorists. I think both of us focused on the anger of the bomber and the sources of that anger, in revenge and in racism.

Robert Pape’s recent book, ‘Dying to Win’ goes further. In it, he discusses the logic of suicide terrorism, not merely the emotions that might motivate it. None of the arguments in Pape’s book will be unfamiliar to antiwar radicals. Pape is a liberal, but if more liberals thought and wrote as clearly as Pape does in this book, things would be better in North America.

Pape compiled a database of all known suicide terrorist attacks (there were 315 of them) between 1980-2003. These were not isolated incidents, he shows, but part of military campaigns with very specific objectives. The campaigns all had a number of things in common. First, they were waged by non-state actors, with significant popular support, targeting stronger opponents. Their targets were ‘democratic’ states (Pape defines the term and uses it consistently, whatever one may think of his definition of ‘democracy’) and their objective was to coerce a stronger state to withdraw occupying troops from the homeland of the attackers. Pape explains the strategic, social, and individual logic of suicide terrorism and uses the data to demonstrate this logic. He disputes the idea that suicide terrorism arises from ‘irrationality’ or springs whole from some religious text.

While Pape frames his entire argument in terms of the US national interest and how to ‘win’ the war on terror, the implications of his argument and his prescriptions are decent and humane. He argues that if America wants to ‘win’, it should remove its troops from West Asia. If it must secure access to energy, it should do so by making friends in the region or, better, developing energy independence. But the strength of the book is not in these prescriptions, but in the data he assembles and the simple and clear way that he summarizes it.

Each new terror attack brings the stupidest and most racist voices to the forefront, calling for measures that will create another turn of a downward spiral. Pape is a real voice of reason. In laying out the strategic logic of suicide terrorism, he shows a way out.

Other good reading: Tanya Reinhart’s latest, on ‘How we left Gaza’. As she always seems to do for me, Tanya clears up something that didn’t make any sense to me. When Sharon announced the ‘withdrawal’ from Gaza, he had no intention of actually withdrawing. So what happened? According to this article, the Americans decided they didn’t want the headache of Palestine while in the midst of an unpopular massacre in Iraq. It’s something a Palestinian friend of mine suggested to me months ago, but I didn’t believe it until I read Tanya’s data.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

6 thoughts on “Suicide Terrorism and Robert Pape”

  1. I’ve circulated the above
    I’ve circulated the above interview amongst my local peace coalition. Seems to me that this is the analysis the anti-war movement as a whole should become intimately familiar with. The study should become as well known as the body count from the infamous Lancet study.
    After all, we have an opportunity now to understand and analyze terrorism better than all the Hilliers, Sharons, Cheneys, et al combined.

  2. It’s interesting that Pape
    It’s interesting that Pape doesn’t prescribe anything radical. His analysis doesn’t even challenge US global hegemony. Despite that, his analysis is totally opposed to the continued American occupation of Iraq. Very telling.

  3. That’s exactly right, Iqbal.
    That’s exactly right, Iqbal. From clear thinking about the political-military strategy required to ‘defeat suicide terrorists’, it seems to follow that the US should remove troops from Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula and Israel from Occupied Palestine. No need for a radical analysis to get you that far. Though, of course, a radical analysis can help with a great deal else…

  4. Beyond the “they do it
    Beyond the “they do it ’cause their land is occupied” thesis – which I think is pretty obvious to most radicals – it wouldn’t hurt to look at the weapons people have available to them in their respective struggles.

    I interviewed the general secretary of the Population Front for the Liberation of Palestine [incidentally, leftist atheists who smoke during Ramadan and also use human bombs] in prison in Jericho a couple years ago, and I asked him what he’d say to someone who said that the suicide bombings actually hurt the Palestinian cause in international opinion. His answer?

    “Give us tanks and Apaches and the bombings will stop tomorrow, I promise.”

  5. Hey Jon. That’s totally
    Hey Jon. That’s totally right – and also in the first chapter of the book: that suicide attacks are a strategy for weak actors. Usually part of ongoing military campaigns that are asymmetric.

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