The Magazine

Suicide by Bomb

Misunderstanding a weapon in the terrorists’ arsenal.

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By MAX BOOT
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Crater caused by a suicide bomber photo

Crater caused by a suicide bomber, Hangu, Pakistan, March 2011

Hasham Ahmed / AFP / Getty Images / Newscom

Ah, social science. All those numbers. All those technical terms. How comforting. How reassuring.

How definitive.

If only.

Case in point: Robert A. Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who made a big splash with Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005). He began with a sweeping claim to scientific certitude, informing readers, “I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003—315 attacks in all.” And what did all those numbers prove? That “there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. .  .  . Rather what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”

His premises validated to his own satisfaction, Professor Pape then segued into what (to him) was surely an unassailable conclusion: “that the sustained presence of heavy American combat forces in Muslim countries is likely to increase the odds of the next 9/11.” Rather than embrace “any strategy centering on the transformation of Muslim societies,” he lectured policymakers, “We need to recall the virtues of our traditional policy of ‘offshore balancing’ in the Persian Gulf and return to that strategy.” In other words, withdraw our troops from the countries where they have been stationed—countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—in order to “find a lasting solution to suicide terrorism that does not compromise our core interest in maintaining access to one of the world’s key oil-producing regions.”

Dying to Win was such a big succès d’estime that Pape has followed up with a second book—this one coauthored by James K. Feldman, a professor at the Air Force Institute of Technology—which restates the thesis of the earlier work and extends the research up to 2009. Cutting the Fuse comes with even greater trappings of social science than its predecessor. The very first page announces that the research was generated by something called the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, which of course has its own acronym (CPOST) as well as a long list of financial backers: “Over several years, funding for these efforts was provided by the University of Chicago Division of the Social Sciences, the U.S. Department of Defense (the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Office of Naval Research), Argonne National Laboratory, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.” An impressive list, which only makes one wonder at the absence of the Ford and MacArthur Foundations and one or two other blue-chip endowments. 

The authors then thank a long list of “exceptional young professionals” for (you can almost hear the back-slapping) going “the extra mile to ensure the high standards required for the CPOST database development, campaign research, and analysis.” Nor is that all. Pape and Feldman claim that “this book is not written from a specific worldview, ideological orientation, or Democratic or Republican program.” Rather it is motivated solely by the “assumption that dispassionate consideration of the facts can create consensus and hope for a new future in American foreign policy.” Unlike the rest of us, Pape and Feldman are totally devoid of any worldview or orientation; they are simply servants of The Truth as determined by the Scientific Method.

This conceit is undermined a bit by the fact that the acknowledgments contain a glowing tribute to John Mearsheimer, who “inspired Bob Pape to pursue a career in social science to better the world, and continues to challenge him to do so.” That would be the same John Mearsheimer who, along with Stephen Walt, authored that notorious anti-Israel—bordering on anti-Semitic—tract known as The Israel Lobby, which accused pro-Israel Americans of being Fifth Columnists. While Pape’s books are not nearly as egregious as his mentor’s, he does share with Mearsheimer a proclivity for disguising inflammatory political arguments behind a thin patina of social science which breaks down upon the slightest critical examination.

Start with Pape’s most fundamental claim: that suicide bombers are not the product of Islamic ideology but rather are frustrated nationalists who emerge “from communities resisting foreign military occupation.” If this were the case, it would be hard to figure out why suicide bombing only became a common terrorist tactic in the early 1980s. Why wasn’t it used before by nationalists in Vietnam, Algeria, or other colonial battlefields?