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reviews

By Elayne Jude, Great North News Services

The Samson Syndrome; is there a kamikaze psychology?
Professor David Canter

The Second Plane - September 11: 2001-2007
Martin Amis

Unfair. Reviewing these two titles together is not altogether comparing like with like.

Professor David Canter, Director of the Centre for Investigative Psychology, presents a thorough and sober discussion of the psychology of the suicide-terrorist. He cites Adorno, Orwell, many scholarly papers on criminal psychology (including seven of his own), and primary sources such as Mohammad Sidique Khan's 'suicide note' tape, and a special oversight panel hearing on "terrorism and threats to US interests in the Middle East". His study covers nations from Japan to Turkey to America to Chechnya to Spain. Inevitably, post 7/7, there is an emphasis on the British experience. Unarguably, in contemporary studies of asymmetric warfare, no country can be considered in isolation.

Martin Amis, novelist, essayist and reviewer, married to an American, resident at the time of the obliteration of the World Trade Center ("the majestic abjection of that double surrender"), has published a collection of 14 pieces - including film and book reviews, analyses of Islamism, a diplomatic adventure with Tony Blair, and two short stories - on September 11 and its continuiing reverberations, "its mystery, its instability, and its terrible dynamism".

Each of them is doing his job; the refusal of orthodox thinking and the pursuit of truth. Both are concerned, Canter exclusively, Amis discursively, with the phenomenom of suicide bombing.

The utility of purpose of Canter's piece is more overt. The profiles of the British suicide bombers (or, as he is careful to stress, what is publicly known about them) appear to contradict received wisdom about the catalysts and cradles of classic terrorism. Canter is attempting to find alternative perspectives from which to "understand the processes that gave rise to these bombings, and thus contribute to methods for reducing their likelihood in the future".

Canter writes at the crest of an pioneering career. In 1994 he founded an MSc in investigative psychology at Liverpool, the first course in the world to concentrate on offender profiling. He has worked with the police on hundreds of cases and given evidence many courts and to a Commons Select Committee. Many of his former students are active in practical crime reduction

Reading Amis, one finds oneself nodding in agreement at almost any point simply because it is put with such assured seductive adroitness; the phrases so sanguine, so sustained, so startling yet inevitable, it almost follows that the ideas must be equally ungainsayable. With an internationally recognised body of work behind him, unanswerable to any institution, he has the freedom of manoeuvre that allows him such throwaway mischiefs as: "Bush is more religious than Saddam...of the two presidents, he is, in this respect, the more psychologically primitive...We hear about the successful 'Texanisation' of the Republican party. And doesn't Texas sometimes seem to resemble a country like Saudi Arabia, with its great heat, its oil wealth, its brimming houses of worship, and its weekly executions?"

This is not to deny the rigour of Amis's logic or the reach of his reasoning. His fun is not unearned. He quotes Conrad, Larkin, the Koran, George W Bush, Saddam Hussein; there's an extensive essay devoted to Sayyid Qutb, guru of modern Islamism. Again and again he turns to Paul Berman's "Terror and Liberalism".

Certainly, the writing is beautiful. On publication, the book was criticised for its refusal to pander to certain sensitivities in its powered condemnations of what Amis calls the death cult of modern Islamism. Commentators have made the about the matchless verbal command and control sometimes to discount the intellectual credibility of the work.

In his review here of "United 93", Paul Greengrass's docudrama about the fourth plane, crashlanded in that field in Pennsylvania by the rebellion of the hostages, Amis writes about "the extraordinary performance of Khalid Abdella [playing Ziad Jarrah, pilot and leader of this particular squad]...among the little-knowns and the unknowns and the people playing themselves, Abdalla, perhaps destabilisingly for the movie, is something like its star". The brilliance of Amis's performance here almost risks upstaging his material. How to resist this long unsparing toll, written following the attempt on Glasgow Airport: "Was Ladies' Night at the Tiger Tiger discotheque a legitimate target for Dr Ahmed's 'anger' about Iraq ? Were the morose North Africans of July 21 'desperate' about Palestine? And what do all the UK jihadis have in common, these brain surgeons and jailbirds, these keen cricketers and footballers, these sex offenders, community workers, ex-boozers and drug addicts, primary-school teachers, sneak thieves, and fast-food restaurateurs, with their six-litre plastic tubs of hairdressing bleach and nail-polish remover, their crystalline triacetone triperoxide and chapatti flour, and their 'dockyard confetti' (bolts and nuts and nails)" ?

It was suggested that audiences flocked to Amis' subsequent appearance at a well-known literary festival, not because of what he had to say, but because of how he was able to say it. Rather like denying that a beautiful woman in a sought-after job might also actually be rather good at it. Still - what consolation for the lesser-gifted.

Canter's piece is an up to date explication of his thinking. Amis has, mostly, resisted the temptation to revise his earlier pieces; they stand as products of their times, and as evolutionary evidence of his thinking - after 9/11, after Madrid 2004, London 2005, Glasgow 2007.

Canter's obligations are to show his working. His basic thesis opens with pointing out the difficulty of obtaining direct evidence of the mindstates of suicide bombers. They are not available for interview. The testimony of their friends, peers, families may be tinted by those persons' own agendas, conscious or otherwise; complicity, guilt, remorse, anger, self-protection. The failed bombers who survive the attempt, even if made accessible to researchers, "may not be representative of the possibly more determined individuals who were able to achieve their objectives". Suicide tape messages are performance pieces, ritualistic and formulaic, revealing little of the personality. (Except, perhaps, the most revealing evidence of all; the desperate insecurity animating the postures.)

For Amis, the case seems much simpler. Successful suicide bombers are what they do. "Terror always has its roots in hysteria and psychotic insecurity...the suicide killers belong in a different psychic category [to the New York firefighters risking and losing their lives in the toxic rubble of the Towers], and their battle effectiveness has, on our side, no equivalent".

How do the bombers get into that "different psychic category", and what can be done, and by whom, to keep them out of it? Because if we could answer that, we might be spared the task of conjuring a battlefield effectiveness which was an equivalent - and what is that? An F16 flattening a wedding party? Indefinite detention without trial? Extraordinary rendition and the wholesale acceptance of the legitimacy of torture? The catastrophic humiliations of Abu Ghraib? The gunning down in London of a dark-skinned man who panicked and ran?

Categories, and categorisation, are the problem. Canter's central argument comes down to this: "two focal points of the bombers' cognitions, (a) a 'cognitive simplicity' that makes a very stark distinction between the 'in-group' the bomber identifies with and everyone else, and (b) the belief that the suicide is the only way of influencing that 'out-group' ". Them v Us. What enables a suicide bomber, finally, to enact his anti-apotheosis, is an ability to simplify other people, nations, cultures, ethnicities, into the most basic moral building blocks of good v bad, black v white, chosen v damned, human v less-than-human.

Amis is also interested in dichotomy, and in resisting what, he says, "Paul Berman, the author of 'Terror and Liberalism', has called 'rationalist naivete' - a reflexive search for the morally intelligible, which always leads to the chimera of 'moral equivalence' ".

In reviewing Ed Husain's autobiographical 'The Islamist', a study of radicalisation and its reversal, which he finds, overall, "persuasive and stimulating", Amis writes: "...he visits a false dichotomy on us, and one that has recently gained an undeserved respectability. He wants to be 'free from the fanaticism of secularism or religion'...in this general view, fundamentalists are on one wing, atheists are on the other, and the supposed centre is occupied by moderate believers and a few laconic agnostics. Secular fanaticism, secular hatred - these equivalences are fictions. The humanist pit bulls Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, I am confident, have very few affinities with Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The key point, of course, is that secularism contains no warrant for action".

Canter dismisses the popular perception that deprivation is a direct cause of terrorism. He cites studies of organisations from Al-Qaeda to the IRA that suggest no basis to the supposition that membership is likely to be drawn from the uneducated and the dispossessed; rather the opposite. He summarises Youngs' (2005) study "[comparing] various Middle Eastern countries, India and China and the source of revolution in other areas of the world to show that, if anything, repressive regimes serve to keep terrorist activity under control and that those who wish to attack civilians benefit from the freedoms associated with democracy'..."Rashid (2000) has shown that the brutal, totalitarian regime of the Taliban owed much to the deprived and primitive conditions in which they had their origins. Such regimes can export terrorism quite directly by the provision of material and training as well as espousing a destructive ideology, but it is important to distinguish between the broader political processes and the mechanisms by which individuals, who do not live in fear of their lives and who have a reasonably secure and comfortable existence, turn to the most destructive of acts against themselves and strangers".

Neither is mental illness a compelling rationale."...an elementary consideration of the July 2005 bombings in London would make clear that the perpetrators could not have been insane in the usual sense of out of contact with reality, drugged or even highly trained fanatics. The New York aeroplane hijackers similarly indicated a determination and coolness of purpose that is not compatible with a psychosis or other extreme form of mental illness...there is no evidence at all that suicide bombers are overtly mentally disturbed...Merari (1990) claims that only a minority of those who volunteer to be suicide bombers are selected to do so. This is understandable in military terms. A person who was mentally unstable would not be relied upon to focus and follow through with the desired objective and so would weaken the whole operation and put disclosure of its methods at risk".

Canter also rejects 'brainwashing' as an explanation for the suicide-bomber mentality, as it is dependent on a centralisation of organisation simply not available to modern terrorist cells: "In a detailed study of the Al Qaeda network, Sageman (2004) shows just how complex and self-generating terrorist networks can be...These loose networks...survive by encouraging and supporting small, independent groups, over which they have very little direct control (Arran, 2004). But this requires that the groups are very much self-defined and self-motivated, rather than being fiercely manipulated by some charismatic leader...it is the ways of thinking of individuals that need to be explored rather than only focusing on the grand designs of some notional leadership."

Canter points out that "there is nothing new or particularly Islamic about suicide bombers", and does discuss, for example, the precedents of ancient Israel, Imperial Japan, contemporary India, affluent Europe, the secular Kurdistani PKK . But his attention is drawn back time and again to the pressing imperative of the post Twin Towers, new world players, the fundamentalists, the Islamists; and Islamist mass-murder suicide is the whole of Amis's territory.

In his introduction, Amis writes: "Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is. And have we ever seen the male idea in such outrageous garb as the robes, combat fatigues, suits and ties, jeans, tracksuits, and medics' smocks of the Islamic revival ?"

Canter's analysis really starts to spark where he moves into the arenas of social identity and emotional reward. AQ type suicide bombers (so far) have been overwhelmingly male, and young, and spit-full of young man's machismo. The air of injury and outrage, the sensitivity to insult, their reliance on the group to shore up a shaky sense of self, the seriousness with which they take themselves and their self-appointed mission, are unmistakably Young Man in search of Manhood. As Canter rather blandly notes: "Young women do not seem to have the same pressures on self-identity as young men, possibly because their challenges relate more directly to role conflicts within society and because the options of motherhood and wifedom provide a different milieu within which to seek out a sense of self and challenge social norms" (really? Might not one equally say, to adopt an off the peg sense of self and to confirm social norms?)

Canter continues: "...Community and family support is important for these violent young men because it helps to feed and shape their own sense of who they are. They absorb the distinction between their in-group and all others who are not part of that group from the culture in which they are immersed. "

And Amis, very crisp: "Ideology is in the business of aggrandising those who subscribe to it".

Canter gives a short space to a crucial factor; Excitement. "...If a suicide bomber believes he is carrying out a role in a major drama he will get some emotional benefits from carrying through that role, excitement, feelings of heroic achievement, even some forms of pleasure".

Amis: "There is {a} symbiotic overlap between Islamist praxis and our own, and it is a strange and pitiable one. I mean the drastic elevation of the nonentity. In our popularity-contest culture, with its VIP ciphers and meteoric mediocrities, we understand the attractions of baseless fame - indeed, of instant and meritless immortality. To feel that you are a geohistorical player is a tremendous lure to those condemned, as they see it, to exclusion and anonymity...As Muhammad Atta steered the 767 towards its destination, he was confident, at least, that his fellow town-planners in Aleppo would remember his name, along with everybody else on earth. Similarly, the ghost of Shehzad Tanweer, as it watched the salvage teams scraping up human remains in the rat-infested crucible beneath the streets of London, could be sure that he had decisively outsoared the fish-and-chip shop back in Leeds."

In his summing-up, Canter concludes that "There are many implications for actions to counter present day terrorism, especially suicide bombing, from this psychological analysis. But the analysis is not offered as a substitute for political and social action...the psychological considerations do suggest that political and social solutions will never be sufficient. As long as people can see the world in simple 'us' and 'them' terms and will assign themselves to a storyline that requires them to make the ultimate sacrifice to challenge an implacable and mighty enemy there will be individuals whose search for identity will lead them to terrorist acts".

Amis: "Suicide-mass murder is astonishingly alien, so alien, in fact, that Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it. A rational response would be something like an unwavering factory siren of unanimous disgust. But we haven't managed that. What we have managed, on the whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion...Contemplating intense violence, you very rationally ask yourself, 'What are the reasons for this ?' And compassionately frowning newscasters are still asking that same question. It is time to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason".

(Amis, famously at political odds with his rightwing father, anti-nuclear weapons, opposed to the invasion of Iraq, one week after September 11 2001 wrote in The Times: "We would hope that the response will be, above all, non-escalatory [and} also have the capacity to astonish ... A utopian example: the crippled and benighted people of Afghanistan, hunkering down for a winter of famine, should not be bombarded with cruise missiles; they should be bombarded with consignments of food, firmly marked LENDLEASE USA. More realistically, unless Pakistan can actually deliver bin Laden, the American retaliation is almost sure to be elephantine. Then terror from above will replenish the source of all terror from below; unhealed wounds").

The drive to reason (for secular educated Westerners at least) is tough to resist. For Amis, the problem is, if not soluble, obvious:

"The connection between manifest failure and the suppression of women is unignorable. .What would happen if we spent some of the next three hundred billion dollars (this is Liz Cheney's thrust) on the raising of consciousness in the Islamic world? The effect would be inherently explosive, because the dominion of the male is Koranic - the unfalsifiable word of God, as dictated to the Prophet".

The break comes in Canter's smooth academic surface in his final paragraph: "...groups which attempt to defend their culture, attitudes and values from those of others around them in the belief that they are defending their 'race' or 'ethnic group' are mistaken. What they are doing is attempting to corral a set of subgroup specific narratives in which their own images of themselves are protected. These are the parents who insist on single-faith schools for their children, and the government ministers who support such developments".

A constant of the iteration of the successes, the progress made by the British in their current occupation of Afghanistan, is the resumption of the schooling of girls in that country. In Britain, around one third of state-maintained schools are faith schools.

What are we to make of this nexus of policy-making ?

Amis: "I was once asked: 'Are you an Islamophobe?' And the answer is no. What I am is an Islamismophobe, or better say an anti-Islamist, because a phobia is an irrational fear, and it is not irrational to fear something that says it wants to kill you. The more general enemy, of course, is extremism. What has extremism ever done for anyone ? Where are its gifts to humanity ? Where are its works?"

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