Furthermore, this may also be true of rampage killers like Adam Lanza, Dylan Klebold, and perhaps Aaron Alexis. The two groups, long considered to have separate motives, are actually driven by the same desires, Lankford believes. "Anger and rage are common risk factors for both conventional suicide and murder-suicide, and they often drive suicide terrorists as well. For instance, a preemptively arrested suicide bomber known as Rafik admitted that he struggled with uncontrollable anger throughout his life. This included throwing hot tea on his father during childhood, beating up people for saying 'Hi' to him, and threatening to kill a hospital doctor for delivering him bad news."
A quick glance over our sad history of rampage shooters would seem to confirm Lankford's notion that those people, at least, are typically suicidal. Some of them committed suicide-by-cop, most of them directly killed themselves after their rampage. What surprised me more was the evidence Lankford presents that suicide terrorists want to kill themselves at least as much, or more, as they want to achieve any bigger political aims. "... Authorities have similarly asserted that despite their radical ideology, suicide terrorists are 'psychologically normal' and 'psychologically stable,'" he writes. "However, new research has shown that many suicide terrorists were in fact suicidal, for many of the same reasons other people become suicidal, such as depression, hopelessness, guilt, shame, and rage."
Lankford argues that September 11 hijackers Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah all exhibited suicidal tendencies. He also gives the example of Nigerian Umar Abdulmutallab, who posted online that "i am in a situation where i do not have a friend…i have no one to speak too, no one to consult, no one to support me and i feel depressed and lonely. i do not know what to do," before he tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit.
Finally, the suicide bomber and the mass shooter alike may be attempting to link their desire for death with a desire for immortality, or at least notoriety. "The third factor is the desire to acquire fame and glory through killing," Lankford writes. "Most suicide terrorists believe they will be honored and celebrated as 'martyrs' after their deaths and, sure enough, terrorist organizations produce martyrdom videos and memorabilia so that other desperate souls will volunteer to blow themselves up." Not only that, but many suicide terrorists come from societies where opportunities for young men (who comprise the vast majority of both terrorists and mass-shooters) are virtually nil. In the Muslim world in particular, martyrs' families are often fiscally rewarded for the deed, so these men are able to achieve two goals: they end their own suffering, and they provide for their families in one of the only ways available to them.
In his op-ed piece for the New York Times, Lankford concludes, "It is tempting to look back at recent history and wonder what’s wrong with America — our culture and our policies. But underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers — including suicide terrorists — in other countries. The difference rests in how they are shaped by cultural forces and which destructive behaviors they seek to copy. The United States has had more than its share of rampage shootings, but only a few suicide attacks. Other countries are regularly plagued by suicidal explosions, but rarely experience a school shooting."
Would the Columbine shooters, the Adam Lanzas, and the Seung-Hui Chos of the world have been suicide bombers if they'd grown up in the Gaza strip or Saudi Arabia? It's a provocative question, one I had never considered. I'm not sure if I agree with Lankford entirely, but I think his ideas are certainly worth considering.
What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers
The Truth about Suicide Bombers
Martyr Myth: Inside the Minds of Suicide Bombers