Fwd: [Reader-list] Richard Dawkins on Suicide Bombers

rehan ansari rehanhasanansari at yahoo.com
Mon Sep 17 20:05:26 IST 2001

these men were not young...do not fit the suicide-bomber profile in that sense...
when reporters looked to see what impression mohammed ata  and pals may have left iin the community the only thing that stood out, for a bar tender, their barroom vodka shots (after days of flight training)...
and dawkins has cleansed away all politics, transformation of self from politcal impulses from his analysis of their motivation...
simple minded they were not, in fact extremely high concept and extremely low tech...
so unfortunate that such a man as Dawkins has a job like he does... but thats oxford
  Shuddhabrata Sengupta <shuddha at sarai.net> wrote: From: Shuddhabrata Sengupta 
Organization: Sarai
To: reader-list at sarai.net
Subject: [Reader-list] Richard Dawkins on Suicide Bombers
Date: Mon, 17 Sep 2001 18:17:16 +0530

What Makes a Suicide Bomber a Suicide Bomber ?

Richard Dawkins attempts an answer. Please read and reflect.

Richard Dawkins is professor of the public understanding of science, 
University of Oxford, and author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, 
and Unweaving the Rainbow. 
Richard Dawkins

Saturday September 15, 2001

A guided missile corrects its trajectory as it flies, homing in, say, on the 
heat of a jet plane's exhaust. A great improvement on a simple ballistic 
shell, it still cannot discriminate particular targets. It could not zero in 
on a designated New York skyscraper if launched from as far away as Boston. 

That is precisely what a modern "smart missile" can do. Computer 
miniaturisation has advanced to the point where one of today's smart missiles 
could be programmed with an image of the Manhattan skyline together with 
instructions to home in on the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Smart 
missiles of this sophistication are possessed by the United States, as we 
learned in the Gulf war, but they are economically beyond ordinary terrorists 
and scientifically beyond theocratic governments. Might there be a cheaper 
and easier alternative? 

In the second world war, before electronics became cheap and miniature, the 
psychologist BF Skinner did some research on pigeon-guided missiles. The 
pigeon was to sit in a tiny cockpit, having previously been trained to peck 
keys in such a way as to keep a designated target in the centre of a screen. 
In the missile, the target would be for real. 

The principle worked, although it was never put into practice by the US 
authorities. Even factoring in the costs of training them, pigeons are 
cheaper and lighter than computers of comparable effectiveness. Their feats 
in Skinner's boxes suggest that a pigeon, after a regimen of training with 
colour slides, really could guide a missile to a distinctive landmark at the 
southern end of Manhattan island. The pigeon has no idea that it is guiding a 
missile. It just keeps on pecking at those two tall rectangles on the screen, 
from time to time a food reward drops out of the dispenser, and this goes on 
until... oblivion. 

Pigeons may be cheap and disposable as on-board guidance systems, but there's 
no escaping the cost of the missile itself. And no such missile large enough 
to do much damage could penetrate US air space without being intercepted. 
What is needed is a missile that is not recognised for what it is until too 
late. Something like a large civilian airliner, carrying the innocuous 
markings of a well-known carrier and a great deal of fuel. That's the easy 
part. But how do you smuggle on board the necessary guidance system? You can 
hardly expect the pilots to surrender the left-hand seat to a pigeon or a 

How about using humans as on-board guidance systems, instead of pigeons? 
Humans are at least as numerous as pigeons, their brains are not 
significantly costlier than pigeon brains, and for many tasks they are 
actually superior. Humans have a proven track record in taking over planes by 
the use of threats, which work because the legitimate pilots value their own 
lives and those of their passengers. 

The natural assumption that the hijacker ultimately values his own life too, 
and will act rationally to preserve it, leads air crews and ground staff to 
make calculated decisions that would not work with guidance modules lacking a 
sense of self-preservation. If your plane is being hijacked by an armed man 
who, though prepared to take risks, presumably wants to go on living, there 
is room for bargaining. A rational pilot complies with the hijacker's wishes, 
gets the plane down on the ground, has hot food sent in for the passengers 
and leaves the negotiations to people trained to negotiate. 

The problem with the human guidance system is precisely this. Unlike the 
pigeon version, it knows that a successful mission culminates in its own 
destruction. Could we develop a biological guidance system with the 
compliance and dispensability of a pigeon but with a man's resourcefulness 
and ability to infiltrate plausibly? What we need, in a nutshell, is a human 
who doesn't mind being blown up. He'd make the perfect on-board guidance 
system. But suicide enthusiasts are hard to find. Even terminal cancer 
patients might lose their nerve when the crash was actually looming. 

Could we get some otherwise normal humans and somehow persuade them that they 
are not going to die as a consequence of flying a plane smack into a 
skyscraper? If only! Nobody is that stupid, but how about this - it's a long 
shot, but it just might work. Given that they are certainly going to die, 
couldn't we sucker them into believing that they are going to come to life 
again afterwards? Don't be daft! No, listen, it might work. Offer them a fast 
track to a Great Oasis in the Sky, cooled by everlasting fountains. Harps and 
wings wouldn't appeal to the sort of young men we need, so tell them there's 
a special martyr's reward of 72 virgin brides, guaranteed eager and 

Would they fall for it? Yes, testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive 
to get a woman in this world might be desperate enough to go for 72 private 
virgins in the next. 

It's a tall story, but worth a try. You'd have to get them young, though. 
Feed them a complete and self-consistent background mythology to make the big 
lie sound plausible when it comes. Give them a holy book and make them learn 
it by heart. Do you know, I really think it might work. As luck would have 
it, we have just the thing to hand: a ready-made system of mind-control which 
has been honed over centuries, handed down through generations. Millions of 
people have been brought up in it. It is called religion and, for reasons 
which one day we may understand, most people fall for it (nowhere more so 
than America itself, though the irony passes unnoticed). Now all we need is 
to round up a few of these faith-heads and give them flying lessons. 

Facetious? Trivialising an unspeakable evil? That is the exact opposite of my 
intention, which is deadly serious and prompted by deep grief and fierce 
anger. I am trying to call attention to the elephant in the room that 
everybody is too polite - or too devout - to notice: religion, and 
specifically the devaluing effect that religion has on human life. I don't 
mean devaluing the life of others (though it can do that too), but devaluing 
one's own life. Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the 

If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life highly 
and be reluctant to risk it. This makes the world a safer place, just as a 
plane is safer if its hijacker wants to survive. At the other extreme, if a 
significant number of people convince themselves, or are convinced by their 
priests, that a martyr's death is equivalent to pressing the hyperspace 
button and zooming through a wormhole to another universe, it can make the 
world a very dangerous place. Especially if they also believe that that other 
universe is a paradisical escape from the tribulations of the real world. Top 
it off with sincerely believed, if ludicrous and degrading to women, sexual 
promises, and is it any wonder that naive and frustrated young men are 
clamouring to be selected for suicide missions? 

There is no doubt that the afterlife-obsessed suicidal brain really is a 
weapon of immense power and danger. It is comparable to a smart missile, and 
its guidance system is in many respects superior to the most sophisticated 
electronic brain that money can buy. Yet to a cynical government, 
organisation, or priesthood, it is very very cheap. 

Our leaders have described the recent atrocity with the customary cliche: 
mindless cowardice. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalising of 
a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on 
September 11. Those people were not mindless and they were certainly not 
cowards. On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with 
an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that 
courage came from. 

It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of 
the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly 
weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here. 
My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or 
religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded 
guns. Do not be surprised if they are used. 

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