Suicide bombers: explanations vs. excuses
In an article entitled "How not to explain suicide bombing," and posted here at Normblog, Eve Garrard examines the reasons put forth by apologists on the left to explain--and sometimes, by extension, to excuse--suicide bombers. She tackles three particularly commonplace explanations/excuses, and finds all three wanting: poverty, despair, and lack of alternative tactics.
When I read Ms. Garrard's article it reminded me of something I've thought about many times before: the fact that, although there is a world of difference between an explanation and an excuse, in practice and argument the two are often blurred. For example, in sociological reseach, an area in which I have some experience, demographic characteristics such as poverty, race, or history of abuse in childhood might be studied to see whether they are more frequent in criminals than in the general population. Then the results are reported and discussed, and then interpreted and used in different ways (explanation? excuse?) by different interest groups.
When sociological studies are done and data is collected and analyzed in this manner, are the results meant to be mere descriptive correlations, or are they offered as explanations for a behavior--or even as excuses? And, if so, does the data actually support those conclusions? As with so many things, the answer is "it depends." It depends on the way the data has been gathered, crunched, and then discussed by the author, who may or may not have an agenda (if the author is a scientist, he/she is not supposed to have an agenda, but scientists are also human). The reader may certainly have an agenda, and this often affects the way he/she interprets and understands the data. And the political and special interest groups discussing the data most definitely have an agenda.
But, logically speaking, correlation does not imply causation--that is, explanation--and neither a description nor an explanation implies an excuse. Of course, politics and journalism don't always take this logic into account, to say the least. But I'll try my best to do so here, and to differentiate between explanations and excuses.
An explanation is a factor contributing to a behavior, and it exists in the empirical sphere: "X is one of the reasons Y happens." There are different types of explanations. A necessary explanation would go like this: "Y cannot happen without X having happened." A sufficient explanation is as follows: "For Y to happen, only X needs to have happened."
An excuse, on the other hand, exists on the moral sphere, and goes this way: "X is one of the reasons we should forgive the person who does Y and not hold him responsible." Excuses have to involve some sort of reason to let the perpetrator off the moral hook.
In her article, Ms. Garrard has rather amply demonstrated that poverty, desperation, or lack of alternative tactics are neither necessary nor sufficient explanations for suicide bombings. In fact, it seems that in many cases they are not even characteristics of suicide bombers at all. But that doesn't mean that, in certain individual cases, these factors couldn't be considered to be contributing or partial explanations. The left has traditionally been interested in these kinds of "rational" and/or socioeconomic factors (poverty, desperation, and need) as explanations for immoral behavior on the part of a group the left sees as underdogs or powerless. The left's perception of suicide bombers certainly seems to fit this mold rather well.
To be considered excuses, however, these possible contributing explanations would have to be both necessary and sufficient--which they are not, as Ms. Garrard demonstrates. In addition, because of the terrible nature of the acts of suicide bombers who deliberately target innocents, the perpetrators' cause would have to rest on a nearly unchallengable plane of high moral rectitude in order to be considered to be any sort of possible excuse--and, even then, they would be subject to "do the ends justify the means?" arguments. Another possible excuse would be if the perpetrators were found to utterly lack the moral capacity (in the legal sense) for making judgments. The latter condition is also not met in the case of suicide bombers, except perhaps for those very few who seem to actually have been developmentally disabled (the apparent use of a Down's syndrome youth in Iraq, for example).
But what about other possible explanations/excuses? What accounts for the seeming reluctance on the part of the left to offer religious belief as either an explanation or an excuse for suicide bombers, a reluctance Ms. Garrard mentions in her article but declines to explain? After all, the bombers are clearly under the sway of ideologies that promise them eternal rewards in heaven for their behavior. The bombers' belief that they will receive rewards in the afterlife for their acts is not sufficient to explain their behavior (after all, not everyone who believes in such a philosophy becomes a suicide bomber, not by a long shot), but there is little doubt that it is necessary. Try as one might, it's hard to find a person--however desperate, impoverished, or lacking other resources--willing to blow him or herself up in the act of murdering innocent civilians for political ends, who does not believe that he/she will receive some sort of spiritual reward beyond this life in return for that act. (The kamikaze pilots of WWII are sometimes compared to the terrorists and might be considered exceptions to this rule, since it is unclear to what extent afterlife beliefs motivated them. But kamikazes differed from modern-day terrorists in many important ways, particularly in the fact that the kamikaze targets were all military and were never innocent civilians. And, although there is some uncertainty as to how much a belief in afterlife rewards such as enshrinement may have motivated the kamikazes, it seems to have at least been somewhat of a factor in their motivation.)
Another characteristic that seems necessary, although not sufficient, to create a suicide bomber is an ethos that glorifies death in some way. Certain segments of Palestinian and other Arab/Islamicist culture do just that, as witness statements such as the famous "you love life and we love death." In the case of the kamikazes, the culture didn't seem to have glorified death in the same sense. But an acceptance and even glorification of suicide in romantic/heroic terms appears to have been present in traditional Japanese society, which may have helped pave the way for the kamikaze pilots' acceptance of tactical suicide in service of country.
Why, then, do most on the left tend to ignore these strongest possible explanations (afterlife rewards, glorification of death) for the behavior of modern-day terrorist suicide bombers? Is it because these explanations fail to fit the left's preferred socioeconomic framework of behavioral causation? Is it because religion is generally of such slight importance to many on the left in their own lives that it's hard for them to credit its importance in the motivations of others? Or is it because such explanations are harder to offer as excuses for the behavior, and it is really excuses that many on the left are seeking?