This was buried on page 14 of the Guardian Higher Education section. Chris Arnot reports on a paper by a Warwick University professor, Mark Harrison, that is attracting attention of social scientists studying the phenomenon of suicide bombing. What’s unusual about Harrison is that he is “an economist, not a psychologist nor a sociologist of religion.” Harrison’s brief essay, “The Logic of Suicide Terrorism” (PDF), applies the preoccupations of his discipline to this problem in a rather interesting way: he argues that suicide bombers act out of rational self-interest.

Suicidal terrorism is a potent weapon because it evades conventional military tactics that presume that people have an inherent interest in staying alive. All the firepower in the world can’t deter someone whose particular rationality is not centred on preserving the living body. So, as Harrison puts it in different terms, the problem is to accept that this rationality of self-preservation is not universal, and to discover the values that underpin the particular rationality of the suicide bomber.

The solution he comes up with is intersting: life is only valuable in the context of the identity that has been built up around it, “thus identity itself is valuable.” Indeed, he says, it is each person’s most valuable asset.

… Each person who chooses the death of the self does so because at the given moment death will enhance her most valuable asset, the identity that she has selected and invested in through her life, but living on will damage it irreparably. The moment is such that by choosing life she must abandon this identity.</p> A “martyr” identity can be emerge in certain social conditions, but needs to be reinforced by an organisation that makes it impossible to continue living while maintaining one’s identity:

From an economic point of view the relationship between the suicide attacker and the terrorist organisation may be understood as a voluntary transaction of mutual benefit. The volunteer agrees to trade life for identity. In return for the promotion of its terrorist objectives, the organisation agrees to affirm the volunteer’s identity in the community as a warrior martyr, and also provides the means of destruction and self–destruction to distinguish this identity through violence.</p> The story also mentions one Ariel Merari of the Political Violence Research Unit at Tel Aviv University. It makes sense that there would be a specialist research centre on this topic, but I had never heard of it. There might be some interesting reading material there…