And Their Approving Parents: A Joyless Meditation
A while back I was asked, as a psychiatrist, to weigh in on the topic of Arab children who ask to become suicide bombers, and their approving parents. I took a pass. I wasn’t ready to go down that path, to set aside my shield of labels, all variations of “brainwashed,” “fanatic,” and “crazy,” and put down my cleaver that splits the me from them and the them from their humanity.
Then, I remembered. If psychiatrists can stand ready to help survivors of cults and kidnappings, and returning POWs, how is a child suicide-bomber applicant with approving parents any different? I set aside my shield and put down my cleaver and asked myself the following question: “Face-to-face with such a child and the approving parents, what would I say? Where might I begin?”
For this I began pondering the familiar experience of letting oneself get carried away by a destructive impulse, remembering and reflecting on those dares and double-dares of childhood. I reflected on our readiness to tear down goal-posts following a victory on the gridiron in our teens and our joining a march as young adults and remaining even after it morphed into a destructive riot. A part of us knew there was more at risk than property; there was our health, reputation, and career. But, at such moments these aren’t our priorities, are they? “I don’t know why I did that,” you hear yourself telling a parent, teacher, or judge. Think of actor Mel Gibson who said as much following his drunken anti-Semitic rant after a traffic stop, or those youthful accusers during Salem’s witch trials in the 1690s and their subsequent apologies. Think of Pinocchio. They all had one thing in common; they came to their senses. They woke up, or grew up, as it were, and felt and expressed remorse.
So, the question becomes: wherein does the state of being carried away by group-think become one’s permanent state of mind, one from which one never wakes up or grows up and comes to one’s senses? It’s as if, for some, there simply isn’t a self to wake up—a self-awareness, an awareness of self-with-agency. And never was. It’s as if for some children who’ve never had support for pondering and raising questions, only for doing and thinking as they were told, obedience has been their consistently reliable source for belonging, identity, appreciation, and love. What would it mean to such a child, now a youth, to be told, “Just be yourself”? And if that doesn’t carry meaning might the absence of affirmation of one’s individuality in early life account for that? Are we talking about a sense of Self that is not simply dark, it’s absent?
For us in the West, of course, submission to the will of a group is generally a conditional thing—temporary—whereas in the Arab world it can be unconditional and permanent. What we might call a deprivation they might consider an asset wherein hope for redemption, for a recovery of lost honor and dignity, if not in this life then in the next, is bona fide. Obviously, the mention of fulfillment and becoming whole can have different meanings. It’s not so surprising, then, that people who approve of and sponsor suicide bombings by children never seem to use the word “death” in their justifications, promotions, and celebrations, preferring instead words like being (eg, being a martyr, being in Paradise) and becoming (eg, becoming a Hero), highlighting what is gained, not lost.
Dr Climo is the author of Psychiatrist on the Road: Encounters in Healing and Healthcare, an account of his Locum Tenens experience.