Martyrdom and Terrorism: The Road to Predatory Suicide

Hugh D. Barlow, Southern Illinois University

In a recent issue of The Criminologist, Richard Rosenfeld argues that "poverty of intellectual imagination" has prevented criminologists from studying terrorism "right alongside other forms of predatory or justice-oriented violence." The study of terrorism will enrich criminology, he asserts. I agree, and I propose to start the search for enlightenment by studying the antecedents of what made 9-11 so shocking to much of the world: predatory suicide.

In this paper I trace the historical roots of this phenomenon, beginning with the emergence of a cult of martyrdom during the Roman era. I show that martyrdom became an important mechanism of social control, later to be refined and further reified with the spread of Islam and the Christian backlash. By the time of the Crusades, martyrdom had become a form of military strategy, with policy implications. On another continent, the Sikhs of Northern India embraced the ethic and practice of martyrdom, and understood its potential as a proactive mechanism of control.

The Twentieth Century witnessed a further refinement of the martyr concept, one that includes its military value by extends its reach. The Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II showed how a combination of technology, core values, and legend could be turned into a proactive and predatory military policy, while, more recently, Palestinian freedom fighters and militant Islamic fundamentalists have shown that predatory suicide has become a weapon of choice in the terrorist arsenal.

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Updated 05/20/2006