There is some speculation that the culture of militant martyrdom may stem from the abuse of children at an early age. Militant martyrdom has been described as a result of children being reared in authoritarian fundamentalist familial systems (Kaganovskiy, 2003). Kaganovskiy ultimately explains the phenomenon of terrorism (in this case militant martyrdom) by a lack of empathy by the terrorist. This lack of empathy has been developed in childhood as a result of oppression, impoverishment, and suffering.
However, he argues that these conditions are second to repeated abuse and neglect as a child in the development, or rather non-development of empathy. Furthermore, Kaganovskiy suggests, women in these societies are the major perpetrators of the non-development of empathy in children. He suggests that because of the misogynistic environment and brutalization at the hands of males, women lose their ability to empathize. Therefore, women are not capable of teaching their children, particularly male children, empathy and actually become abusive towards their young. (DeMause, 2002; Janowitz, 2006; Kaganovskiy, 2003) Lachkar (2002) added that suicide attackers have developed a borderline personality disorder that developed because of neglectful and abusive child-rearing practices, frustrating dependency needs and viewing individual desires as weakness. She adds that young boys experience anger and resentment as a result. This may cause them to identify with charismatic leaders, adopt misogynistic and oppression ideologies, and disassociate with anything perceived as womanly, including participating in child-rearing practices (Berko & Erez, 2005; DeMause, 2002; Lachkar, 2002; Steiner, 1974). Thus, the cycle is perpetuated. Bardis (1973) additionally notes that physical violence is most commonly found those with lower social status and lower levels of education. As previously pointed out, there appears to be little positive correlation between poverty and support for terrorist acts (Krueger & Maleckova, 2002). However, this may provide some rationale for the support that is found among low SES Palestinians.
De Silva, et al., (2001) conducted a study of nineteen children in Sri Lanka between the ages of 10 and 17 conscripted into armed combat. Of the 19, 18 volunteered for service. Nine joined in the hopes of being a freedom fighter or martyr. Five joined out of hatred for the enemy. De Silva, et. al. (2001) indicate, "Children become easy targets for recruitment because of their idealist minds. They are easily influenced by propaganda" (p. 126).They declare the conscription of children of any age to be an intolerable form of child abuse. A brief discussion of Erikson’s (1968) theory of developmental psychology may shed some insight. According to Erikson, adolescents use ideology to protect their developing, but still unstable identities. They search to find ideas and beliefs outside of themselves that are clearly defined and unwavering. This makes them vulnerable to uncompromising belief systems. Further, denial of something concrete to believe in may add to the child experience of frustration (Soibelman, 2004).
However psychologically abusive the marketing of war to children and the conscription of children may be, it has not been limited to Sri Lanka. In May 2001, the Palestinian Authority aired the first in what has become a series of martyrdom propaganda. A five-minute music video aimed at recruiting children to become suicide attackers has been directly linked to bombings (Timmerman, 2002). According to Timmerman, the definitive connection came in the form of farewell letters left behind in which children quoted lines from the video. In the 12 years between the first suicide attack in 1989 and the beginning of the Palestinian Authority martyrdom propaganda campaign, approximately 21 suicide attacks were carried out (Yom & Saleh, 2004). In the subsequent 3 years after the initiation of the campaign, over 110 acts of militant martyrdom were perpetrated (Yom & Saleh, 2004).
Militant martyrs do not simply start as terrorists. There appears to be a process for involving oneself with terrorist organizations. Hudson (1999) illustrates one path in which an individual moves from sympathizer to passive supporter to group member after violent encounters with authority figures. A conglomerate of research notes systemic problems with in the Palestinian Territories of negative primary and secondary experiences with the Israeli military and security forces. These experiences reportedly included having a loved one killed or beaten, mandatory searches and seizure of property, annexation and occupying of traditional land, and innumerable additional persistent acts of Palestinian perceived humiliation, oppression, and injustice. (Soibelman, 2004)
One question that must be asked involves how militant martyrs deal psychologically with the human devastation they commit. Hudson (1999) describes four techniques of moral disengagement originated by Albert Bandura in 1990. The first technique involves the use of moral justification. Here, terrorists see themselves as warriors against injustice and oppression. A second technique involves the displacement of responsibilities onto group leaders. Third, there is a minimization of the actual suffering of the victims. Finally, terrorists dehumanize their victims by using name-calling, labeling, and other rhetoric. Hafez (2006) notes that the aforementioned use of ritual and ceremony serves the additional purpose of suppressing and converting moral constraints from harming others, into ethical imperatives to do harm. Further, the carrying out of the suicide attack provides an anticipated release from the dissonance that undoubtedly results. According to Soibelman (2004), this dissonance “might lend itself to justification or constructions that the individual had no choice, and that their enemy bears ultimate responsibility for violence” (p. 182). As can be seen, the process of moral disengagement involves several necessary psychological steps to allow the potential martyr to carry out his mission.

Terrorists may receive a variety of social, economic, religious, and psychological rewards for their actions. Social rewards include the elevation of social status of the martyr and his family after his death (Post, Sprinzak, & Denny, 2003; Post, 2005). This is particularly relevant to the Arab culture that places great emphasis on honor (Berko & Erez, 2005).
Other incentives to engage in acts of militant martyrdom include potential economic rewards. Post, et al. (2003), wrote, after interviewing twenty-one Islamic terrorists, “Families of terrorists who were wounded, killed, or captured enjoyed a great deal of economic [and material] aid and attention. And that strengthened popular support for the attacks.”
Islamic religious rewards promoted by supporters of militant martyrdom include forgiveness of the martyr’s sins and the ability to intercede on behalf of seventy family members during judgment (Soibelman, 2004). Islamic Jihadists following Osama bin Laden have been promised a place in paradise (Knapp, 2003). Additional rewards include the fulfillment of sexual desires and fantasies in heaven (Soibelman, 2004). Some have even suggested that the act of blowing one’s self up, as with male suicide bombers, is the symbolic acting-out of the sexual explosion, or ejaculation, at the time of orgasm (Baruch, 2003; Juergensmeyer, 2000).
Finally, the psychological rewards of suicide attacks can result in high motivation to carry out such acts. Acts of militant martyrdom can be seen by the perpetrator as giving meaning to one’s life, symbolically connecting the individual with wide-held cultural myths. In such a way, the acts of the martyr are romanticized and linked to the salvation of the group. (Soibelman, 2004) Additionally, by engaging in militant martyrdom, the martyr is able to demand a sense of individuality and identity that he is otherwise unable to obtain (Moghadam, 2003). Moghadam’s conclusion supports Kaplan’s 1981 assertion that terrorism stems from a poor sense of self-worth. Israeli (1997), likewise, supports this assessment. Post (2005) writes, “Armed action provided a sense of control or power for Palestinians in a society that had stripped them of it” (p. 623). Some researchers argue that Palestinian militant martyrs experience hopelessness and anger (Kushner, 1996; Salib, 2003). Given the conditions of their environment and the psychological traumatization this has likely caused on many, this is not a difficult assessment to make. For those who have known nothing but sorrow, oppression, and violence their entire life, "death holds no terror ... death and torture being the ultimate means by which they assert their power" (Kermani, 2002, para. 56). It is their transcendence, their statement of being. This idea is reinforced by what Bar (2004,) calls “a mentality of bello ergo sum (I fight, therefore I exist)” (p.30). Alternatively, to apply that to the militant martyr, I choose to die, therefore I must exist.
When considering the rationale for why Palestinians might choose a path of martyrdom, three themes become apparent (Hafez, 2006; Janowitz, 2006; Raja; 2005). First, there is religious obligation. Whether the call for martyrdom is a religious duty demanded in the Koran, is beside the point. As discussed elsewhere in this series, martyrdom-groups have persuasive methods for instilling such an understanding into their members and recruits. The second theme is to establish and secure a personal identity and legacy. There is redemption, transcendence, and glory to be had by accepting a path of martyrdom. Finally, there is a persistent theme of wanting to leave the abuses and tribulations associated with their current life for the promised bliss of the afterlife. Additionally, they seek to improve the social and economic conditions of those family members they leave behind.

A commonly under-researched area concerning militant martyrs appears to be the actual risks for traditional suicide (Lester, et al, 2004). However, some research has been done. Israeli (1997) claims that potential martyrs do not possess any risk factors for traditional suicide. Merari (2004) cites the absence of typical risk factors, such as affective disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, childhood loss, or recent stress, as proof that militant martyrs are not suicidal in the traditional sense. These claims made by Israeli and Merari are highly questionable given that neither author’s assertion seems to be supported by thorough psychological autopsies or psychological interviews. Further, this seems to conflict with conclusions that can be drawn from Post’s 2005 study using 93 psychological autopsies of Palestinian martyrs, that cite specific life events that are typically associated with increased risk for suicide. A number of additional authors cite similar risk factors for suicide, such as the occurrences of losing loved-ones, both as a child and young adult, and its synergistic effect, as contributing to the potential martyr’s decision to act (Berko & Erez, 2005; Lester, et al, 2004).
Multiple occurrences of divorce and the prohibiting free-choice marriages are cited as direct causes of volunteering for suicide attacks (Berko & Erez, 2005). Other affective risk factors experienced by potential martyrs include feelings of being hopeless about the future, despair, guilt, shame, humiliation, etc. (Berko & Erez, 2005; Kusher, 1996; Lester, et al, 2004; Salib, 2003). Stein (2003) points to the social contagion, or copycat phenomenon, as another risk factor. If Lachkar’s (2002) hypothesis about militant martyrs having borderline personality disorder as a result of abusive upbringings holds weight, then conventional suicidal ideation and intention becomes even more likely and of enormous concern. Despite contrary arguments, risk factors for suicide, especially a history of abuse, cannot be ignored when considering militant martyrs. 

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This article is authored by Jerry D. Smith Jr., Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist and CEO at Breakthrough Psychological Solutions, PLLC.

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