The day after the San Bernardino murders, I read Hanna Rosin’s sad story of teenage suicides in Silicon Valley. With two lethal epidemics, both invoking the name of suicide and each inspiring others – almost all of them young – to follow, I wondered if there were any connections. Almost every culture glorifies suicide in some form – suicide missions in wartime, protesters publicly immolating themselves, Romeo and Juliet. Still, when suicide bombings erupted in the early 1980s, they seemed to me unsustainable, as, by definition, the number of volunteers must diminish. Clearly I was wrong: according to statistics compiled by the University of Chicago, since 1982, when 15-year-old Ahmad Qasir drove a truck bomb into Israeli Defense Forces headquarters in Tyre, Lebanon, there have been 4,814 suicide attacks in 48 countries, leaving 48,465 people dead and 122,606 wounded – 4,814 martyrs for an act the Qur’an considers a grave sin, and many more signing up.
On the surface, suicidal murderers and suicidal victims have nothing in common. We think of those who die by suicide as despondent and lonely, intent on ending their own suffering, inflicting violence only on themselves – the antithesis of the murderous lust for martyrdom that drives suicide bombers. Yet, many suicide bombers – a surprising number of them “mild-mannered members of the middle class” – are also marginalized and alienated, vulnerable to mystical or cynical calls to martyrdom that promise their short lives meaning and gain them entry into paradise.
Maybe better understanding what causes young people take their own lives could shed some light on these murderous sprees.