Is killing innocent people a good thing? Most of us have a clear-cut answer to that question: No. For suicide bombers in the United States, the answer is not so simple. This is not because most suicide bombers generally think that their actions are justified. Far from it. An analysis of six of the suicide bombings in United States history shows a shocking discontinuity in the bombers’ motivations. Some were motivated by religious reasons and believed they were acting altruistically in service of their god and religion. Some were not religiously motivated, but still found a way to morally justify their actions. Some appeared to have no clear cause; they knew they were committing a despicable act and had come to terms with it. United States suicide bombings are a complex problem that prohibit any clear-cut explanations, making them a multi layered subject to examine.
The history of suicide bombing in America is an interesting one characterized by trends and hallmarks dictated by society and culture in the time in which they took place. The first suicide bombing to ever occur in America happened in 1927, much earlier than many might have anticipated. This tragic event caused the deaths of 38 elementary school children, several adults, and injured many others at Bath School in Michigan.[i]The man who planned this elaborate scheme was Andrew Kehoe. Kehoe was a 55-year-old father of 13 who was previously the school board treasurer and in 1926 decided to run for township clerk. Ultimately, he lost and this became his motive for planning and carrying out the bombing. As the first suicide bombing event in American history, it’s important to closely look at the perpetrator and time period as they set a precedent for commonalities among other early events like this. Kehoe was a middle aged, Caucasian, male, educated, and facing financial and personal life issues. Before he destroyed the Bath School and lives with it, he completely burned his family farm and murdered his wife along with their two horses.[ii]
While this can easily be categorized as a tragedy, the motives are not as clear cut. Kehoe is an example of a conventional suicide terrorist; his reasoning for the suicide attack aligns more closely with typically factors and symptoms of people who are suicidal. This type of terrorist may commit this crime for personal reasons, often with a particular trigger. For Kehoe, this trigger may have been his loss in the 1926 election for town clerk, recent tax increases, and a foreclosure on his home. This anger may have been paired with preexisting mental illness or other factors which culminated in the loss of so many lives.[iii]
But as Dr. Todd Shallat notes, Kehoe’s attack defies any “reductionist simplification.”[iv]By that, Shallat means that while there are particular triggers that are common among suicide bombers, something like the loss of an election or a tax increase would not trigger most people to bomb a schoolhouse. It can be reasonably speculated that a pre-existing mental illness contributed to Kehoe’s violent response to everyday triggers, but it is almost impossible to conclude why those triggers drove Kehoe to respond in the way that he did.
Because an analysis of Kehoe’s triggers defies a reductionist simplification, so also does an analysis of Kehoe’s ethical motivation. Unlike other suicide bombers, Kehoe was not interested in leaving a note justifying his actions or explaining why he did what he did. Instead, he left a five word note wired to a chicken-coop fence, “Criminals are mad, not born.”[v]Analysts struggled to make sense of what Shallat meant, but one thing is clear. Kehoe had come to terms with the fact that he was a criminal in violation of the law, that his decision was morally wrong, and he did not care. Presumably, the immorality of his actions drove him to commit the bombing since he was angry at his city. The United States’ suicide bomber offers an interesting first ethical case study; it appears that he was driven by a desire to be unethical. This “unethicality” can be seen as a direct manifestation to rebel against the expectations of patriarchs during this time.[vi]Kehoe, a once successful individual, began to fall through the cracks professionally and mentally. He most likely moved to extreme rebelling as a final way to end his cycle of failing to cope with his responsibilities culture so desperately told him he needed to. These main factors that seem to have been crucial players: mental illness and financial issues, are two contributions that will form a trend as we examine other early instances of American suicide bombings.
Following the Bath School bombing, several other suicide bombings can be grouped together to form a period that contrasts with the more recent events. From 1959 to 1962 three other suicide bombings occurred after a 32-year period of absence most likely due to people’s preoccupations with The Great Depression and WWII, however this gap was rudely awakened with these three events taking place so closely together. In 1959, there was another school suicide bombing committed by a father who was angered after the school would not enroll his son due to missing paperwork. This event now known as the Poe School Bombing included the murder of 6 individuals including the bomber and his own son after the perpetrator, Paul Harold Orgeron detonated a bomb in his suitcase in the school yard. Orgeron also had a history of questionable behavior as he assaulted his ex-wife and was a former convict.[vii]The following two bombings both occurred on airplanes: National Airlines Flight 2511 and Continental Airlines Flight 11, in 1960 and 1962 respectively. Both of these bombings have almost identical scenarios. Flight 2511 is suspected of being bombed by a man named Julian Frank as his body sustained much more damage compared to the other passengers on the flight. He was also up for suspicions as the day before he took out a $900,000 life insurance policy and his history showed him being under investigation for the misappropriation of almost $600,000. This again conveys the theme of financial pressure being placed on patriarchs predominantly during the 20th century.[viii]
The ambiguous nature of Flight 2511’s explosion makes the ethical difficult to figure out, but we can make an educated guess. Perhaps he was sacrificing himself for the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, which would allow the twisted but potentially potent ethical explanation that he was sacrificing himself for the good of another. It would just so also be the case that he sacrificed everyone else on the plane, too. We can make guesses at his ethical motivation, but since Frank did not leave a suicide note or give anyone an explanation for his actions that has been reported, the suicide bombing of Flight 2511 might just be an action without a point besides a personal agenda.
Without knowing the motivation of the perpetrator, it is difficult to determine the type of suicide bombing the attack was. There are four main typologies of suicide attacks: conventional, coerced, escapist, and indirect. As previously mentioned, conventional suicide bombers refer to those who have motives psychologically similar to traditional suicide, like depression, personal crisis, and other similar, often-egoistic, factors. Coerced suicide bombers are compelled to commit suicide by an outside force or power; for instance, an organization threatening an individual that they will face consequences for not fulfilling the suicide bombing mission. Similar to coerced, escapist suicide bombers fear consequences from the enemy and kill themselves in a moment of crisis but would not otherwise commit suicide. Indirect suicide bombers differ from the other typologies in that it is less overt and difficult to detect; indirect suicide bombers engage in dangerous activities that make death look accidental.[ix]
In the case of Flight 11, two men, Thomas Doty and Geneva Fraley suicide bombed the flight after both bought a combined $325,000 in life insurance policies and named their families the beneficiaries.[x]The ethical nature of this bombing is more clear-cut. While we can only speculate that Frank took out a life insurance policy for the benefit of someone else, Doty and Fraley definitely did that. If it is assumed that Doty and Fraley were in their right minds, then their bombing is the result of an ethical cost/benefit analysis that valued the lives of everyone on that plane less than the $325,000 their families received. This could also be an example of altruistic suicide as the suicide bombers were performing this action for the monetary benefit of their families, regardless of the outcome.[xi]
All four of these events have all of the same commonalities. The perpetrators were middle aged white males who faced financial motivations and most likely undiagnosed mental illness as well.[xii]This can be speculated through the pasts of the individuals which were often tumultuous. During this time period, mental health was scarcely discussed, and even less frequently among this demographic. The lack of discussion coupled with societal stressors placing the fate of economic wellbeing and legacy on the father of a family may have exacerbated the mental states of these criminals, ultimately leading them to commit these suicide bombings. Psychologists have identified certain characteristics that make one more susceptible to partaking in acts of terrorism or radical actions. These individuals tend to feel upset and marginalized, perceive their government to be ineffective or oppressive, feel victimized, desire to act against perceived injustices, believe violence against the state is moral, sympathetic support system, and psychological rewards for actions as Dr. John Horgan found through interviews conducted with 60 former terrorists.[xiii]
As we examine the last two of the six bombings of this nature, a shift is evident. Happening some years later from the previous events, these take on new motives and unique features as societal norms and attitudes change. In 2005, the University of Oklahoma Bombing happened. The bomb killed no one except the perpetrator: Joel Henry Hinrichs III a student there. It was never determined if he meant to detonate it when he did or if it was an accident.[xiv]In 2009 another, and the most recent event occurred on Northwest Flight 253. This international flight was en route to Detroit when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a personal chemical bomb. Fortunately, the device faltered and the passengers and crew were able to detain him and stop the explosion. Shortly after news of the attempt broke Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.[xv]The mind of an individual that perform suicide bombings, acts for the purposes of martyrdom and the human sacrifice of themselves for their cause, is often different than those that commit suicide or self-destruction on a personal level. While about 90% of people who commit suicide have or show symptoms of a diagnosable mental illness, suicide bombers may not show any signs of being suicidal or mentally ill in that regard. Rather, the suicide bombers see acting for their cause as “altruistic,” rather than “egoistic” as suicide is traditionally considered, and right to promote the interests and ideology of the group they identify with.[xvi]This can be more greatly seen in the case of Flight 253; however, parts are still present in the case of the University of Oklahoma.
These two instances vary a little more when compared to each other in contrast to the other attacks. Both perpetrators were young college aged men who were well educated. Hinrichs was an engineering student but was also a social outcast who couldn’t relate to his peers and did not have a religious motive compared to the other case. Instead, Hinrichs can be categorized into a new cultural outlook into suicide and depression. In the early 2000s, many young adults began to use social platforms to fetishize and almost value depression.[xvii]Hinrichs used his depression as his motive and this plays into this movement through the glorification of action by these individuals. Although both situations vary as far as motive, they illustrate that the psychological wellness of suicide bombers remains a disputed topic. Violence is something that can be taught, as seen in psychological studies like Albert Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment which illustrated the process of observational learning. Though many studies have found a lack of abnormal or suicidal symptoms in suicide bombers, there are additional conditions to consider. Most members of a terrorist organization are unwilling to die for the cause, though they would not openly admit that. Suicide bombers, on the other hand, often volunteer for such a role, even if they have little affiliation with the terrorist organization, indicating possible mental illness or compelling external circumstances. There may be instances of recruiters searching specifically for depressed or disadvantaged individuals to perform these suicide bombings. With this information, suicide bombers may have a psychology more similar to personal suicide than previously documented.[xviii]
His bombing attempt is an example of how groups, specifically religions, can have such a strong influence on someone’s moral compass. In Abdulmutallab’s case, he was influenced by Islamic jihadism. But to say that he was “influenced” by jihadism is too light of a word; he was taken over by jihadism. A factor in whether an individual or organization will use suicide bombing is cultural resonance as the tactic is positively correlated with collectivism. This may be due to the holistic value of collectivism, which Abdulmutallab may have found within jihadism, because individuals are more accustomed to working toward group goals than people in individualistic societies.[xix]Notably, Abdulmutallab was not raised jihadist. His father condemned his son’s actions after the fact and even tried to alert United States’ intelligence to the fact that his son seemed to be part of a terrorist plot.[xx]As a result, Abdulmutallab’s ethical corruption did not come when he was young and could not be expected to know better. Instead, he was radicalized while in college primarily by the online teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki.[xxi]The fact that he was radicalized by an online source is an interesting ethical study in and of itself, but al-Awlaki’s teachings give both an interesting and profoundly troubling ethical justification for the attempted murder of an entire plane of people.
President Obama noted in a speech in 2013 that al-Awlaki was an evil because his life goal was to “continuously try to kill people.”[xxii]Al-Awaki did not see it that way. He was a self-described man who aimed at “truth,” which is another way of saying that he aimed to do what was right. He believed that the Quran taught that Muslims should establish the Caliphate now.[xxiii]The Caliphate is a society ruled by Sharia law; a theocracy in which the teachings of the Quran govern are the political and moral framework for the whole society.[xxiv]Since Allah created all things, Allah should also rule all things. Therefore, a key tenet of the Caliphate is that it should be global.[xxv]While most Muslims believe in an establishment of the Caliphate through non-violent means, al-Awlaki’s teachings argued for the establishment of the Caliphate now, through “action.”[xxvi]Specifically, violent action. It was a call to establish a global Caliphate regardless of the costs. Therefore, if an action pushes back against the infidels who ruled a certain part of a society and help to establish the Caliphate, it is a good action, even if it is a violent action. In sum, al-Awaki’s ethical justification for violence works syllogistically: it is ethical to establish the Caliphate; violence establishes the Caliphate; therefore, violence is ethical. Abdulmutallab was corrupted by al-Awaki’s teachings to the extent that he told a classmate that it was his “greatest wish for sharia and Islam to be rule of law across the world.”[xxvii]In other words, it was his greatest wish to establish the Caliphate. He was content to sacrifice himself to kill a plane of infidels and bring a physical Caliphate just a little closer to reality. Interestingly, Abdulmutallab’s suicide bombing would be considered an altruistic suicide through sociologist Emile Durkheim’s taxonomy of suicide. He committed this act through the psychological and sociological belief that his death would benefit his cause, jihadism, and society as a whole. Durkheim identified three main types of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, and anomic. Egoistic refers to suicides concerning issues of the individual, anomic refers to suicides following the deconstruction of social order, and altruistic refers to the suicides performed as a duty or necessity to further a collective goal as Abdulmutallab did.[xxviii]
In both cases above, no one was harmed except the perpetrators themselves but only the latter case was declared an act of terrorism. Since Hinrichs was acting out personally the culture of his suicide was much more an act of anger and resentment that reflected his feelings of being an outsider. act conveys the much more common archetype for what we have seen in recent years manifested in shootings- another type of terrorism that Americans are not as readily willing to categorize as such. Since 9/11 though, Americans’ have defined terrorism in a much narrower scope with the mainstream idea of an extremist coming into view. Political scientists have found that the American civilian struggles to define what terrorism is or what it should be considered to be.[xxix]Flight 253 was considered an attempted terror attack as it had a political statement and was carried out by Al Qaeda, a self-proclaimed terrorist organization. The culture in which these two events take place is muddied. Would Americans have been more upset if the Flight 253 occurred compared to if Hinrichs was successful? It can be argued that the feelings of 9/11 still sting our nation now, and would certainly have much more in 2009, just 8 years after the towers went down. At this time we were more heavily involved in a war in Afghanistan and a suicide bombing of this nature was not only something that felt expected but it was also something almost glorified by media and popular culture in the USA.[xxx]
Suicide bombers perform this act of human sacrifice and martyrdom for countless reasons. They may tend to be loners, tend to be angry, tend to be motivated by a higher cause, whether that be religious or a personal vendetta. The Bath and Poe school suicide bombings, the University of Oklahoma suicide bombing, and multiple flight suicides bombings or attempts thereof are examples of these influences on an individual which eventually drive them to commit murderous acts. Their attacks are not purely rational decisions because they are motivated, in one way or another, by factors in one’s biological or learned psychology, code of ethics, or cultural upbringing or conditioning. They may be mentally ill or fighting for a cause they believe in. Suicide bombings tend toward particular motives and actions, but it is futile to try to fit every suicide bombing into one category. Doing so would require a huge oversimplification of an issue with complex cultural, psychological, and ethical dimension.
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