Inside the psyche of the mass killer

The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers, by Adam Lankford, (Palgrave, RRP£16.99, $27)

Since that horrific day almost two months ago, parents and politicians across America have been asking: why? Why did Adam Lanza take his mother’s semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle to Sandy Hook school and gun down 20 five and six-year-olds, and six staff? And why did he do it, knowing he would almost certainly be killed in the process?

The question has preoccupied President Barack Obama, catapulting gun control to the top of his legislative agenda as he starts his second term. The reinstatement of an assault weapons ban is unlikely, but making background checks compulsory for all who want to buy guns looks achievable.

The administration’s focus on the whys and hows of Sandy Hook echoes the concerns that dominated George W. Bush’s presidency following the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. Why did these men attack? And how can they be stopped in future?

Conventional wisdom holds that they – and those who blow up themselves and others from Pakistan to Israel – see themselves as martyrs for a higher cause. But in his book on “suicide terrorists”, Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, examines similarities between terrorists from lead 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta to the two Columbine High School shooters. Indeed, Lankford notes that three years before the attacks on the Twin Towers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wanted to “hijack a hell of a lot of bombs and crash a plane into NYC with us inside”.

He notes similarities between suicide bombers, school shooters, kamikaze pilots and would-be presidential assassins, looking at case studies, diaries, love letters and martyrdom videos. He concludes they are not motivated by a loftier principle but are simply suicidal: “These different types of perpetrators share an underlying desire to kill and be killed.” Those who have wrought destruction in US schools and cinemas in recent years – similar to Nidal Hasan, the army psychiatrist who gunned down 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009 – do so in the expectation that they too will be killed, Lankford writes. (Unusually Hasan – like Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who bombed and shot 69 people in 2011 – was captured.)

Despite differing backgrounds and beliefs, everyone from Atta to Lanza suffered combinations of isolation, rage, guilt and shame, often compounded by mental health problems, marital strife or addiction. Staging a mass killing offers a way out enabling them to claim a purpose ostensibly more glorious than simply killing themselves, Lankford writes – and a way round the Koran’s suicide ban.

“The desire to acquire fame and glory through killing, and then escape the consequences, is a critical similarity between certain suicide bombers, rampage shooters and school shooters,” he writes. Despite suicide terrorists’ attempts to portray their deaths as noble sacrifices, many are actually engaging in a “quest for personal significance”. In the Middle East, suicide attackers are hailed as heroic martyrs, their sacrifice commemorated on street signs and murals. In the same vein, rampage shooters in the US achieve a kind of recognition for which they could never hope in life.

Only by understanding the psychological crises that lead people to commit such acts can society stop them, Lankford writes. He suggests knowledge of risk factors and warning signs could help identify perpetrators before they attack. He says counterterrorism officials must seek not just radicalised individuals but for radicalised individuals with the personal problems and suicidal tendencies he specifies. He blames US authorities for not acting decisively to stop Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab trying to blow up a Detroit-bound plane in 2009, saying all the warning signs were there.

The book is fascinating for its de­tailed examinations of a range of suicidal attacks and its syntheses of the motives of a disparate group of killers. Lankford challenges the thinking that has dominated public discussion since 9/11 in a highly readable way. With its first-person accounts and references to everyone from Kim Kardashian to Michael Jackson, this is not pop science but pop criminology.

But put-downs of analysts with different views permeate the book. Lankford also fails adequately to examine the religious context in which Islamic extremists are motivated to act. His remedies seem unworkable. Subjecting passengers at US airports to five-minute computer tests to identify those who are suicidal would make removing shoes seem simple.

The Myth of Martyrdom is a valuable contribution to America’s quest to stop mass killings. But Lankford is overstating that contribution when he claims he is right and everyone else has got suicide attackers wrong.

The writer, the FT’s US political correspondent, was previously based in the Middle East

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