Culture of Martyrdom Peer Reviewed Journal

Culture of Martyrdom,” David Brooks calls suicide bombing ” the crack cocaine of warfare,” (1). As a drug-like substance, suicide bombing is addictive and therefore “transforms the culture of those who employ it,” just as drug addiction changes one’s personality (Brooks 1). To prove the point, Brooks traces the use of suicide bombing historically, starting with Hizbollah. Although the Quran expressly forbids suicide, suicide bombing became associated with jihadist movements. Suicide bombing became the ultimate symbol of martyrdom, which is why it is now an ends as well as a means, according to Brooks. Brooks’s argument is disturbing but valid and credible, as the author relies on a multitude of sources and logical, rather than emotionally wrought, discourse.

Suicide bombing reached its hundredth monkey moment, so to speak, after Arafat walked out of the Camp David peace talks. The “psychology shifted” at this moment, because the prevailing ideology was no longer one of achieving social justice but proving one’s undying dedication to a jihad, however that jihad is defined by the organization in question. With regards to Hamas, for example, the movement promoted the existentialism of Palestinian liberation as opposed to a pragmatic solution to political and economic disenfranchisement.

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Interestingly, suicide bombers are not the predominantly poor and uneducated young men, as is commonly believed. Rather, suicide bombers are motivated by the same psychological factors that motivate anyone to act potentially out of character: the need for social belonging. Suicide bombing reflects the organizational structures and hierarchies in terrorist movements. Specific ideologies and frameworks, delivered in the form of propaganda and brainwashing throughout the entire society, underlie the use of suicide bombing. When Brooks claims, “recruits are sometimes made to lie in empty graves, so that they can see how peaceful death will be,” he does not provide any source material to substantiate the claim. However, the author does include primary source references to interviews with suicide bombers revealing the extent of the problem and the methods by which the suicide bombers are socialized.

Suicide bombing has become so thoroughly entrenched in some societies that even those who do not carry out the missions, such as friends and families of the suicide bombers, accept their brand of martyrdom. This is evident in the video recordings that Brooks refers to in the article. Brooks surmises that the culture, and all individuals who belong to it and who ascribe to some of its core beliefs, become addicted to suicide bombing even if just on a symbolic level. Brooks also claims that the drama of suicide bombing makes it like a soap opera, addictive because of its emotional intensity. Television is used to spread the ideology of suicide bombing and reinforce the core message of the supremacy of martyrdom over all things.

Brooks provides some solid solutions to the crisis and recommends especially for the extreme separation between Israeli and Palestinian citizens. This would entail withdrawal of Israel from settlements and to cease constructing settlements. Eliminating the root causes of suicide bombing mean taking away some of the most essential elements of the anti-Israel propaganda. For instance, Brooks claims that restoring Palestinian life to normal and facilitating Palestinian entry into the global market economy via the removal of checkpoints would undermine the martyrdom movement. There would be fewer glorifications of suicide bombers and more celebration of Palestinian businesses or scholars.

Although Brooks cannot possibly know if his suggestions for reducing the scourge of suicide bombings will work, the overall argument remains tenable. Suicide bombing has become problematic because it has become entrenched in the culture. The addiction analogy is suitable because of the shared elements in common between substance abuse and addiction to martyrdom.

For one, both practices are self-destructive. Although addiction primarily hurts the user and suicide bombing is intended to harm far greater numbers of people, the element of self-harm is endemic to both. Brooks underscores the pervasiveness of the problem, albeit by focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The focus on Palestinian examples of suicide terrorism allow Brooks to keep the essay brief, but a broader analysis of the phenomenon should take into account other instances of the use of suicide terrorism as with the Tamil Tigers. Another reason why the addiction analogy works is that it can be applied to different cultures and situations. Suicide bombing is a conscientious and rational tactic, every bit as much as substance abuse begins with a rational choice to alter one’s state of mind. Not all persons who use drugs become addicted, just as not all religious fundamentalists become suicide terrorists.

Also, as with addiction, the substance might have begun as a means to an end but slowly becomes an end in itself. What was originally a means to get high once or twice becomes the core goal that obscures all other values in the individual’s life. Brooks shows how suicide bombing started out as isolated and radical strategies that were part of a liberation movement’s arsenal of weapons, but has since become embedded in those groups’ mission statements. To eliminate addiction, one does not cut off the source of drugs or make the drug illegal per se. Elimination of addiction comes from a more thorough and contextual approach addressing the root causes of the illness. As with drugs, suicide bombing is rooted in sociological and psychological factors. It is a coping mechanism to address pain and suffering, which is precisely why the elimination of suffering will remove the need for a martyrdom ideology.

Work Cited

Brooks, David. “The Culture of Martyrdom.” The Atlantic. Retrieved online:

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