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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?
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.
We’re uncomfortably close, here, to a distinctly un-Western version of “Born Again,” which, creepy as it feels, sheds sobering light on our task. In both cases-theirs and ours-we are talking about religious people, determined to faithfully do God’s will by doing the right thing, unafraid to sacrifice to make the world a better place.
I’m reminded of the Bible story of Eve in the Garden of Eden who bit into that apple even though she’d been told she would die if she did. I don’t think she was thinking of dying back then, or even death. I don’t think she even knew what those words meant, nothing having ever died in the Garden. How could she know? So, like Eve, maybe for prospective child bombers and their parents it’s not death they have in mind but a state akin to transformation, of being “Born Again.”
There’s this story we tell of the psychiatrist becoming frustrated trying to talk his patient out of the delusional belief that he, the patient, is actually dead. “You’re alive!” the doctor finally begins shouting in abject frustration. “No. I’m dead!” the patient shouts back until, in desperation, the doctor grabs a letter-opener. “Do dead men bleed?” “No!” The psychiatrist stabs the patient’s arm and the patient, staring with disbelief at his bleeding arm, murmurs, “I was wrong. Dead men bleed.” We laugh, of course, never thinking to ponder what such a patient might have meant by “dead” or why his doctor never asked. Just because we don’t use words in the same way, doesn’t mean we’re not, in some sense, on the same page. Just because someone speaks of wanting to die, to suicide, doesn’t mean he or she is depressed, doesn’t rule out a motive of simply trying not to go mad, end pain, or not be a burden. How many people have, while psychotic, killed others, not from hate or anger as the media automatically assumes in their coverage, but from fear of harm and the urge to protect, to save themselves, or others. Or the world?
One can see where a would-be bomber and the parents, having made this decision, stand out among their peers in a new way, noticed and affirmed. One can see where this, for them, is a new experience, status, and identity that commands attention and respect. They have stepped forward to stand apart and are now special. Might their orchestrating and experiencing this new status represent an instinctual pull toward the completion of something that had been aborted years before, something that had never developed, that singular voice that no one would dare silence now? Might this be a manifestation of a wholeness with agency, long denied? Such a formulation would, of course, be a reach, but it’s not that hard to imagine these children and their parents trying, in this way, to realize something, complete and fulfill something. If not something in their lives, then something in the lives of their People or in the world of their Maker. Such behaviors, for child and parent both, might not be about anger, revenge, brainwashing, or madness. They may simply be about repair and redemption.
I can imagine myself now across the table from that child who asks to be a suicide bomber. His parents are with him. I am there as analyst, maybe designated healer. Where do I begin? I begin where they are, where both of us are. Healers trying to make the world a better place.
Dr Climo is the author of Psychiatrist on the Road: Encounters in Healing and Healthcare, an account of his Locum Tenens experience.