Suicide Bombing in Halo 3

Interesting and thoughtful article about suicide attacks in the online video game Halo 3:

Whenever I find myself under attack by a wildly superior player, I stop trying to duck and avoid their fire. Instead, I turn around and run straight at them. I know that by doing so, I'm only making it easier for them to shoot me -- and thus I'm marching straight into the jaws of death. Indeed, I can usually see my health meter rapidly shrinking to zero.

But at the last second, before I die, I'll whip out a sticky plasma grenade -- and throw it at them. Because I've run up so close, I almost always hit my opponent successfully. I'll die -- but he'll die too, a few seconds later when the grenade goes off. (When you pull off the trick, the game pops up a little dialog box noting that you killed someone "from beyond the grave.")

It was after pulling this maneuver a couple of dozen times that it suddenly hit me: I had, quite unconsciously, adopted the tactics of a suicide bomber -- or a kamikaze pilot.

It's not just that I'm willing to sacrifice my life to kill someone else. It's that I'm exploiting the psychology of asymmetrical warfare.

Because after all, the really elite Halo players don't want to die. If they die too often, they won't win the round, and if they don't win the round, they won't advance up the Xbox Live rankings. And for the elite players, it's all about bragging rights.

I, however, have a completely different psychology. I know I'm the underdog; I know I'm probably going to get killed anyway. I am never going to advance up the Halo 3 rankings, because in the political economy of Halo, I'm poor.

Posted on November 12, 2007 at 1:20 PM • 58 Comments

Comments

Brandioch ConnerNovember 12, 2007 1:48 PM

I would suggest watching "Independence Day". You know, the movie with the invading aliens.

Pay attention to the tactic (singular) the Good Guys used to defeat the aliens.

And how it saved the USofA on the 4th of July.

JaredNovember 12, 2007 2:05 PM

Choice War Nerd quotes on asymmetrical warfare:

"This is the real question for a kamikaze: how much is your life worth? Versus: how much is your target worth?"

------------

"Last week in the office somebody was saying, 'If only we could get all these terrorists in one place and just drop a daisy cutter on them.' I've heard that a million times. Well, it's not going to happen -- the stupid terrorists are already dead, and the rest aren't going to step out from the alleys and put up their dukes to face the A-10s."

------------

"There ain't no law of war. There's just double-dealt rules pushed through by the big powers. Asking guerrillas to put up their dukes and face the attack helicopters is as stupid as scolding the Boers for filing the tips of their bullets while they watched their families die, nice 'n legal, in those Brit death camps. Like Rummy said, 'You fight with the army you have, not the one you wish you had,' and if that means you've got nothing but small arms and IEDs, then you fight sneaky."

AnonymousNovember 12, 2007 2:09 PM

Maybe I'm an old coot, but wasn't there a time when computer games were about having fun, not about annoying your opponents?

One Dum GuyNovember 12, 2007 2:22 PM

Where is the fun in being completely wiped out by someone with overwhelming, superior strength?

David HogueNovember 12, 2007 2:24 PM

Games are still about having fun for most of the people I know. Sure there are online rankings now and some people do play just to get higher on that list, which I think is more than a little pointless.

Managing to kill them after you are dead in Halo is not just about annoying your opponents. The way the scoring works is you get a point for every enemy you kill and lose none for dying (same as most FPSs.) So, if he kills you and then your grenade kills him you are both get one point.

I think it is an interesting comparison, though really anything new.

ARMNovember 12, 2007 2:29 PM

An asymmetrical situation often changes what counts as an accomplishment (and thereby, fun). Like Thompson, I suck out loud at multiplayer first-person-shooter games - I'm a one-man target-rich environment. Therefore, I have no chance of accomplishing what most players set out to accomplish - namely pwning everyone within a million pixel radius of their location. So, for me, getting someone to reveal their location (normally by shooting me) so that a team-mate can snipe them is an accomplishment - so is killing a target along with myself by using a rocket launcher or other high-explosive in a small room.

-ac-November 12, 2007 2:42 PM

What bothers me is that life itself is losing value, is becoming a game. Even i quite rural America we see the increase of murder-suicides (including pets, and children) In a country's web of security is there a place for "positive area of affect" "weapons"/strategies to overlay and counter "negative area of affect" influences that undermine what stability we have left?
I guess the point i'm making is this is not just terrorists and asymmetrical warfare.

David Dyer-BennetNovember 12, 2007 2:43 PM

The kamikaze specifically set out to attack the superior power, and he did it as a portion of a large military force. That's rather different from Thompson's scenario in Halo 3; he isn't so far as I can see setting out to have a conflict with those superior players

Suicide bombers in Iraq or wherever today are putting on explosives, going to crowded places, and committing suicide for the purpose of taking people with them (and mostly their own countrymen at that), whereas Thompson is describing a last-ditch tactic that lets him often take a superior player with him when he dies. The basic approach is different again.

Or maybe I don't understand things about Halo 3 that Thompson thinks are too obvious to need mentioning; always possible, since I know nothing at all about Halo 3.

Still, if a lot of gamers acquire concepts of asymmetrical combat at a visceral level of understanding, this may have interesting impacts on future politics.

K. Signal EingangNovember 12, 2007 2:44 PM

Only in "Wired" would somebody write that the concept of suicide bombing suddenly makes sense to him thanks to a friggin' XBox game. I'm literally dizzy from the overwhelming reek of banality coming off this article.

Maybe they've just got a list of this week's hot topics sitting in a hat somewhere and this guy happened to pick "Halo 3" and "terrorism"?

Next up - griefing in Battlefield 2 explains the 9/11 attacks, Half-Life 2 as a metaphor for Israel/Palestine, and does Portal testing constitute torture under the Geneva Conventions?..

Seconding the War Nerd recommendation, though.

mozNovember 12, 2007 3:21 PM

Israelis have an interesting way of viewing this. They don't have "suicide bombers" they have "homicide bombers". They're trying to point out that what's wrong with suicide bombers is not that they kill themselves, it's the fact that they murder innocent, uninvolved civilians. I think this makes a good point that the whole shock about "suicide bombers" is a bit misplaced and wierd (though I'm not sure that's what the Israelis are getting at).

Dying for a goal is hardly something which can be criticised. Many of the Victoria Crosses have been awarded for acts which killed their recipient. The greatest heroes of many societies died rescuing others. The defeated captain is meant to go down with his ship or at least come off last.

What's wrong is deliberately or carelessly killing non-combatants and especially people who wish to be non-combatants. The big hole in this wired article is that the other players are actually trying to kill the author; the author is actually fighting back against people who are directly attacking him and so he's not, in any important way, like the pilots in the 9/11 planes or the suicide bombers in the Iraqi markets. What's interesting about the article is that he could miss such a big difference.

Stephen SmoogenNovember 12, 2007 3:26 PM

@-ac-

Actually murder suicides have always been high in rural areas. I remember that most of the people I knew who were murdered growing up always died in that pattern: parent kills kid, kills self, boy kills girl, kills self. etc etc. When I did some research on it I remember coming across a paper that showed rural areas were statistically higher on that form of 'murder' than urban/suburban areas.. I think the hypothesis was that people in rural areas are more likely to feel at the end of their ropes and thus 'against' a superior foe.. thus killing themselves was a way to snub them (be it bankruptcy, divorce, etc).

SteveJNovember 12, 2007 3:31 PM

I couldn't put my finger on what's wrong with the analysis until I read the whole article:

"just as in the real world, some of the disgruntled have-nots are all too willing to toss their lives away -- just for the satisfaction of momentarily halting the progress of the haves."

Nope. This Halo 3 player isn't "throwing his life away". Even within the game, what happens to him isn't like dying, because it's not game over for him.

All he's doing is letting one of his opponents score a point in order to score one himself. Why does he think this is anything like the psychology of suicide bombers? They don't take their point, respawn, and go on to make more suicide attacks.

I also don't necessarily believe that suicide bombers do it "for the satisfaction of momentarily halting the progress of the haves". Neither this journalist, nor anyone else, is going to understand by playing computer games what it is that suicide bombers think they are giving up their lives for. I'm pretty sure though that it isn't to "momentarily halt" my progress.

BetaNovember 12, 2007 3:34 PM

There are times when suicidal tactics make good sense -- this has been known at least since Thermopylae -- but whether people will use them depends on psychology. Marching into battle a dozen times is one thing, but volunteering for a suicide mission is another, even if the odds are about the same. Thompson describes a situation in which a) he will die anyway, so he has nothing to lose from a rational viewpoint, and b) he's done this many times, so he has nothing to fear instinctively. Any commander would want such soldiers.

I'm not an expert, but my impression is that the kamikazes took pride in dying for the emperor, even if the trade-off wasn't really a very good one. Likewise, islamic suicide bombers are supposedly getting into paradise, even if they could have killed more people by using timers and living to bomb another day. In both cases, the suicide aspect is a benefit, not a drawback.

And incidentally, let's not confuse suicide tactics with terrorism. Terrorism is attacking targets chosen at random from a target population in order to keep the whole population in a state of constant fear; you can do that without suicide bombing, and you can suicide-bomb without that purpose.

BenNovember 12, 2007 3:58 PM

This is nothing like suicide bombing.

Firstly, it is a game. Nobody dies.

Secondly, within the parameters of the game, it's nothing like suicide bombing anyway. This is like rushing a pillbox with a grenade to save your brothers in arms.


Finally, this does nothing to illuminate the motives of suicide bombers. Motives which include:

* Has Downs syndrome and doesn't know what he is doing.
* Was sentenced to death for adultery, and given the choice of becoming a suicide bomber as an "honourable" way out.


Superficially the argument seems persuasive: They do it because they have no other way to fight back. But looking at the individual case histories of suicide bombers, many are created from the mentally disabled, the mentally ill, and the coerced.

Others are manufactured, beginning at a very early age, on a production line, which, while it takes in tens of thousands of children each year being taught from primary school age to glorify suicide bombing, continues for years, and culminates in intensive indoctrination by handlers for weeks to months, and can still only turn out a few tens of suicide bombers each year.


Overall, the idea that a large proportion of suicide bombers are really volunteers who have made the described calculus is very questionable.

CGomezNovember 12, 2007 4:12 PM

I read this article when it was published. I actually didn't find it to be very thoughtful.

Halo 3 is a video game. Despite the author's claim to not want to trivialize the tragedy for victims of terrorism... it does.

It also ignores the fact that there is no sympathy to be had for terrorism... ever. I think we can rightly debate how to go about solving terrorism and who is right and who is wrong and what is smart and what is stupid... but universally there is never an excuse for terrorism.

To say the answer to whatever problem you have with the world is to kill people who are at work, at school... in markets... wherever is less than human.

Certainly, two wrongs don't make a right and the "look over there" fallacy doesn't change it. It's subhuman. Someone who decides to subvert the rules of war that are designed to protect against civilian casualties is not a human being, and I don't care what we do to them.

KorayNovember 12, 2007 4:13 PM

Wow. There's quite a difference between "I'm dead either way and at least I am taking you with me" and "I'd rather die with you than live with you".

monopoleNovember 12, 2007 4:23 PM

The two elements of the HALO3 analogy is that he is using Asymmetric Warfare and he is certain of an afterlife. This is a common thread for suicide attacks, Kamikaze attacks centered around aspects of Shinto and Pure Land Buddhist belief. In the same manner the original assassins were motivated by hashish driven imagery of the afterlife managed by the sect leader.

If only we could be facing atheistic religious fundamentalists!

LaertesNovember 12, 2007 4:24 PM

My first reaction was to call BS. In competitive games I'm generally quite willing to sacrifice myself to kill a superior player. I'll engage a superior pilot head-on, knowing that we'll both likely die. I'll abandon my disguise to kill an enemy gunner in full view of his friends who'll surely kill me, if I know he's more valuable to his side than I am to mine.

This isn't any different from sacrificing a knight to capture a queen.

That was my first thought, anyway. But on reflection...

I know how I sometimes feel just before I do this. I'm frustrated. I'm pissed-off. Being outgunned and outclassed feels a lot like being bullied. He's just a far better pilot. If I mix it up with him he'll be on my six within 20 seconds. That sniper is just faster. When I zoom in and look for a shot, it'll be at least two seconds before I line it up and pull the trigger. He'll have me in under a second. I know this because it's happened three or four times already.

And so when I do this--when I head-on his P-51 with my P-38, or when I spawn as a spy and go after his sniper, it's not just a cold "knight for queen" trade. I'm angry. He's been dominating me, humiliating me, and I want him to feel some of that frustration and helplessness too. I'm willing--eager, even--to suffer some more frustration if it means I get some payback, however small. I may even do it if it's counterproductive. It could well be that I'd do my side more good any number of other ways. But that urge to strike a blow, any blow, against the guy I perceive as a bully, can be strong.

So yeah, multiply those feelings by about a thousand, to scale up from the game world to the real world, and I can see the connection.

AnonymousNovember 12, 2007 4:40 PM

@moz What's wrong is deliberately or carelessly killing non-combatants and especially people who wish to be non-combatants.

Like firebombing Dresden and Tokyo?

@Beta Terrorism is attacking targets chosen at random from a target population

I guess they **just happened** to hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon since their targets were chosen at random.

@Ben Superficially the argument seems persuasive: They do it because they have no other way to fight back. But looking at the individual case histories of suicide bombers, many are created from the mentally disabled, the mentally ill, and the coerced.

Others are manufactured, beginning at a very early age, on a production line, which, while it takes in tens of thousands of children each year being taught from primary school age to glorify suicide bombing, continues for years, and culminates in intensive indoctrination by handlers for weeks to months, and can still only turn out a few tens of suicide bombers each year.


Overall, the idea that a large proportion of suicide bombers are really volunteers who have made the described calculus is very questionable.


Not as questionable as your claims. See Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer.

@CGomez It also ignores the fact that there is no sympathy to be had for terrorism... ever. I think we can rightly debate how to go about solving terrorism and who is right and who is wrong and what is smart and what is stupid... but universally there is never an excuse for terrorism.

To say the answer to whatever problem you have with the world is to kill people who are at work, at school... in markets... wherever is less than human.

Certainly, two wrongs don't make a right and the "look over there" fallacy doesn't change it. It's subhuman. Someone who decides to subvert the rules of war that are designed to protect against civilian casualties is not a human being, and I don't care what we do to them.


No need to debate too much about what is stupid - your comment pretty much illistrates why the US is not going to do much good.

KevinNovember 12, 2007 4:44 PM

The similarity breaks down quickly due to the fact that in Halo 3 (or any of these style of games), you then come back to life and can continue to try for victory. A solution like this benefits you, because you trade just a few seconds of down-time for another valuable point. It's rare that deaths count against you in any meaningful way. The penalty is far far FAR less than it is for a suicide bomber or kamikaze pilot. The comparison is unconvincing.

ARMNovember 12, 2007 5:49 PM

Here's perhaps a helpful hint. Don't equate Clive Thompson with a suicide bomber or a Kamikaze pilot. The analogy DOES break down there.

Think of Thompson as being an insurgent leader, or in the Japanese Imperial command, and think of his individual avatars as the bombers. It works better that way. Thompson is sending his avatars to their "deaths" in an attempt to inflict damage on the forces of other players who have immense advantages over him. He is, in effect, sending avatars off to die in order to inflict damage on an enemy who, in a stand up fight, would kill his avatar with their own without suffering any loss. While Thompson suffers no real-world injury when his avatar dies, there is a small cost to be paid, and so when up against someone of equal skill, he doesn't send the avatar to its death - he kills the other player's avatar with his own, and preserves that resource (keeping himself from being dinged a point for dying).

In other words, he has learned to treat a resource as expendable when he sees no viable way of obtaining his objective (killing the other guy's avatar), and loss of the resource is effectively unavoidable. Therefore, rather than simply losing the resource, with nothing to show for it, he directly sacrifices the resource to better his chances of reaching a goal. This is what has given him an insight into why asymmetrical warfare tends to produce suicide attacks from the weaker force.

The point behind sending in suicide attackers is not simply to kill one's own people - there were no dedicated Kamikaze pilots at Pearl Harbor. Its important to keep that in mind. If someone suddenly found a means of preventing suicide attacks of killing anyone other than the attacker, such attacks would end, as they would no longer serve any purpose. (You could make an exception for suicide as protest, but those are very rarely designed to injure others.)

bacNovember 12, 2007 8:36 PM

In the PC version of X-Wing Fighter, I used to switch all of my shields forward and ram the top front of my X-Wing into an on coming Tie Fighters. This would kill R2D2 but I would be able to fix him before the next ramming. I did this because I was a bad shooter and I found out that certain Tie Fighters didn't have shields. Crude but effective.

Stephen DaughertyNovember 12, 2007 9:06 PM

I think the guy has a point, if only in cold tactical terms. I've played FPS and set off grenades knowing I'm too close, but knowing also that I can have a disproportionate effect on the enemy...

...not to mention getting the satisfaction of denying them a victory I'm pretty certain they'd otherwise have.

But what doesn't enter into things here is that suicide bombers have the virtue of being beyond the reach of interrogators once their mission is complete, and it takes a lot less training and effort to wire some idiot up to walk into a crowd than to teach the same guy to plant the bomb and elude capture. In short, suicide bombers are cheap cannon fodder who require minimal training, and can be trusted, if they blow themselves up properly, never to divulge your secrets.

I imagine there's a special place in hell for people who convince folks to do this kind of thing.

HarmyGNovember 12, 2007 10:32 PM

One could also draw parallels to a poker player playing in a tournament haphazardly. Very good players avoid all-in situations at all costs. Savvy, unskilled players can use that against them and make risky plays that will work.

mozNovember 13, 2007 12:58 AM

@Anonymous

a) it's morally wrong
b) it's most often a war crime
c) it's normally ineffective
d) it most often leads to similar attacks on your own side.

Apart from that nothing simple specific comes to mind immediately.

aaawwwNovember 13, 2007 1:51 AM

I don't think that amercan civilians decided not to enter in conflict with iraquis. Those civilian voted for a militarized petroleum driven party first, remember? The government is responsable for the people, and the people for the government. So there are no civilians, only targets.

averrosNovember 13, 2007 3:40 AM

aaawww --

and that, in short, is the problem with democracy. Democracy begets total wars - when civilians are considered legitimate targets, precisely because of the fiction that they control the government - and therefore *are* responsible for their government's action.

That makes one really nostalgic for the age of monarchies, when wars (when not religious) were mostly family affairs - and which tended to leave civilians unmolested and which culminated in the notion of "gentlemen's war" (which still has its remnants in the Geneva conventions and the notion of "just war").

asdasdasdNovember 13, 2007 4:04 AM

In Halo 1, any grenade you threw within a second or so of being fragged wouldn't actually detonate; I presumed exactly to prevent this. Did that change in Halo 3?

SteveJNovember 13, 2007 5:15 AM

@averros: "That makes one really nostalgic for the age of monarchies, when wars (when not religious) were mostly family affairs - and which tended to leave civilians unmolested"

Rubbish. Name the war between monarchs which ever left civilians unmolested.

Consider the feudal levy, the fact that armies needed to "gather supplies" (i.e. loot), the fact that soldiers tend not to uphold the most scrupulous of standards in their treatment of the civilians supplying their enemy, and the fact that war and the consequent destruction in infrastructure generally leads to famine and disease. And that's even assuming that you don't occupy enemy lands and enforce victor's justice on the civilian population.

It's an utter fiction to send out an army claiming that it will only damage the enemy's soldiers, whether you're a monarch or a president.

AleNovember 13, 2007 6:04 AM

Not having played Halo 3 (or any FPS, for that matter) I find the comment by Laertes very illuminating.

I agree with other posters in that the situation he describes is quite different from that of a suicide bomber targeting civilians. However, the psychology that he describes can very well have a parallel outside Halo 3. Rather than framing the whole thing on a game-theoretical, rationality argument, I would stress the emotional aspect of it. For the leaders, rationality arguments may cut it. For the bombers themselves, only emotions will explain their actions.

StephaneNovember 13, 2007 8:18 AM

Speaking of suicide tactics in game, there is one that was widelyx popular in "Battlefield 2", a modern combat FPS:

In this game, teams must "capture flags" by having team member close to the flags for some time. A popular tactic was to put 8 people in a Blackhawk helicopter and fly from flag to flag without ever touching the ground.

The best counter for this tactic was for the enemy to stuff his own helicopter with C4 and send a single pilot after the Blackhawk. When he came close, he would just and immediately detonate the C4 (because the game doesn't net you do that from inside). If you where lucky, you might even survive the blast...

Alternatively, you could do the same with a jeep and a tank although te kill/death ratio wasn't as good.

In any case, a couple of application of this tactic usually caused the enemy to shift to a more "traditional" approach.

Of course, this is only a game...

NMNovember 13, 2007 8:39 AM

"Israelis have an interesting way of viewing this. They don't have "suicide bombers" they have "homicide bombers". "
Oppressive régimes have an interesting way of naming their opponents so as to deny them their rights.
Palestinians blow themselves up because they can't afford US-made bombers and laser-guided bombs.

JohnNovember 13, 2007 9:23 AM

I don't believe it is primarily economics that drives suicide terrorism. It is the unique theology of cruelty that teaches that if one blows themselves up to kill infidels, they will go straight to heaven. Those preaching this theology typically target those oppressed (usually by their own governments, rarely by those who get the blame)--it is easier to persuade those who feel hopeless. To say it is economics is usually a means to pass the buck--there are many people who are miserable who are not brainwashed and would never hurt another.

To say Israel doesn't have suicide bombers because they have bombs and their oppression drives others to do it is also to pass the buck. They do not have the theology the suicide terrorism = martyrdom = paradise. I'm not defending them, but they don't have a movement preaching jihad.

It also doesn't really equate to murder-suicides. Usually what happens in murder suicides is the murderer turns the gun on themselves rather than face consequences.

I'm not sure why it is so much easier to blame factors other than the value system of the person(s) who engage in horrible acts, but it certainly doesn't help the problem when would-be terrorists (of any race or religion) hear a chorus that their actions are the fault of everyone but themselves.

I agree with the posters that say there is concern that life is being cheapened. I don't want to be drawn into a debate about why and what to do about it, but i is obviously a serious problem.

Best regards.

AlexNovember 13, 2007 9:23 AM

As opposed to what other kind of bomber? Kiss bombers? Pizza bombers? Aren't bombers by definition engaging in homicide?

JohnNovember 13, 2007 9:44 AM

@NM: "Palestinians blow themselves up because they can't afford US-made bombers and laser-guided bombs."

No, suicide bombers blow themselves up because they have bought into the theology that it is their ticket to paradise and they have a crisis of values. (Certainly, not all palestinians fall into this category.)

MikeANovember 13, 2007 10:41 AM

@Alex: Aren't bombers by definition engaging in homicide?

Not the ones who are targetting property, although their actions may result in some deaths.
Italian partisans had, IIRC, a fair bit of effect on the rail system using bombs supplied by Donovan's OSS. There were intended to blow the wheel-bearings off one car of a train as it entered a tunnel. I suspect the by-kill was pretty low, and definitely not the goal.

JohnNovember 13, 2007 10:46 AM

@Stefan

Some are voluntary, some aren'. There are many reasons for them. The suicide attacks we saw on 9/11 and by terrorists are typically done voluntarily due to the promise of paradise. In the early days of the Iraqi war, some Iraqi military personel would blow themselves up near military targets because they were told if they surrendered their families would be tortured and killed--and Saddam Hussein certainly is not the only tyrrant to use family to force violence. Not all those who did this were poor.

Basically, while those stricken with poverty tend to be more easily persuaded (either due to loss of hope, or hope for paradise), the real common denominator tends to be forces with no regard for human life. Be it those who preach that if you blow yourselves up murdering your enemies children you go to paradise, or a thug like Saddam saying if you don't I will torture your families, it is seldom if ever economics alone that inspires. (As stated in another post, the murder suicide isn't murder by suicide, it is murder with the intent of avoiding consequence--very different.)

I admittedly do not know the solution.

skateNovember 13, 2007 12:43 PM

"No, suicide bombers blow themselves up because they have bought into the theology that it is their ticket to paradise and they have a crisis of values. (Certainly, not all palestinians fall into this category.)
Posted by: John a"

Actually, it is a little more complex than that. The idea of an afterlife does help, but suicide bombers are indoctrinated the same way all soldiers are, by breaking them down as individuals and building them back up to bond with their fellow fighters under a common fraternal goal. Suicide bombers die for their comrades as much if not more so than trying to get into heaven. While I'd love to be able to blame religion as the sole cause of suicide bombings that would be a vast over simplification and wouldn't be a sufficient model to understand the behavior and help us counter it.

JohnNovember 13, 2007 1:03 PM

@skate:

I agree it is much more complicated. I hope I didn't sound to be condeming religion, because that would be unintentional. I'm a religious person myself. I'm a big fan of religion, and I work with Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike that are among the kindest people I know. What I blame for much of it is the theology of cruelty which is more fanaticism than it is religion.

Alan Dershowitz wrote some excellent peices about suicide terrorism. As with anything, there are payoffs. Understanding such payoffs for each sect of fanatics and threats is essential to solving or reducing the problem. Payoffs can be belief in paradise, love for family and comrads, etc., or it can be as simple as fulfillment of hate (or sometimes just complete lunacy).

But no, I don't blame religion.

Thank you for your post--I appreciate the dialogue.

DuhNovember 13, 2007 1:12 PM

@John,

And why do you think the bombers-to-be are led to this belief? Do you think it could be because this is the most effective way for those in authority to strike a blow against their enemy? Think about it: why go to the effort of indoctrinating a bomber if you could achieve the same results in an easier fashion? Suicide attacks are just the most extreme manifestation of asymmetric warfare--if parity existed between the two combatants, you'd probably never see it.

JohnNovember 13, 2007 2:37 PM

@Duh

There is some truth in what you say. However, if there was parity, you'd probably just see different tactics. Parity wouldn't end conflict, just change it.

Of course, another dimension is that of deniability. Some of those in authority, even when they have military might, may prefer to arm fanatics and attack through proxy so they can say they had nothing to do with it.

Almost too many possibilities to address.

AndyNovember 13, 2007 9:11 PM

Actually, you are not adopting any tactics; you are taking advantage of a programming issue in a game simulation. Most computer games have logic issues that can be used to bypass the normal game tactics. You are no longer playing the game, you are playing the program.

If a soldier, or even a suicide bomber, tried that move it wouldn’t work. Instead of a health meter running down as you took hits, the first hit would stop the attack. After one hit, you would not be able to get close and throw the grenade.

Many computer games have these issues. (I hesitate to say flaws.) There is a game of rock-paper-scissors that pre-loads the video clip of the opponent making their throw. Since the starting position was slightly different for each clip, you can tell what their throw is going to be before moving. And there is the computer poker game that will always fold if the odds fall a certain way. Calculate the right raise and you always win.

Your Halo tactics are for the Halo program, not for urban warfare.

SparkyNovember 14, 2007 6:18 AM

Ofcourse, you don't see such behavior in games where the asymmetry is reversed, such as in the game Ravenshield for example.

For those who don't know the game; the goal is for a SWAT team (human players) to free hostages and kill terrorists (computer players). When you get killed, you have to wait for the next round (sometimes as much as 15 minutes) before you can re-join. The SWAT team is usually outnumbered by about 10 to 1.

Because of this, the value of the life of a SWAT member is far greater than that of a terrorist, except in some situations. For example, you must free a hostage, and one of the SWAT team may sacrifice himself to prevent the terrorists from killing the hostage. An enemy sniper may also be worth it, if there aren't many terrorists left.

Adam LockNovember 14, 2007 6:46 AM

Call of Duty 4 apparently has a "martyr" specialization that players can use. It means that just as you die you pull the pin from a grenade with the potential to kill anyone nearby.

AlbatrossNovember 14, 2007 2:28 PM

One thing to keep in mind in Halo 3 (and other games) is that in order to avoid frustrating some players completely, there are multiple measures of victory.

I'm in my mid-Forties, and I play this game with my teenaged kids. I have absolutely no means of beating my kids (or any other teenager) in a one-on-one head-on situation. Their reaction times are so fast that it is futile and frustrating.

But you don't just get points in Halo for being best at killing. Your rank goes up, for example, everytime a team on which you are playing wins or ties. Additionally, you can save and publish three-dimensional re-playable-from-any-angle movies of the action in your games - so if you do something cunning or clever or exceptional, you can save it and share your moment of glory.

My point being that the tactics and morality around suicide bombing can be subject to multiple measures of 'success.' And what ARE the measures of success in our current real-world geopolitical situation? We are occupying two nations, and yet we use the terms "victory" and "success" in reference to our goals. But you can't "win" an occupation, you only maintain it or end it.

So first of all, there must be other measures of "success" at play here, otherwise our (literally) no-win situation would rapidly become intolerably frustrating. And second, what are the measures of "success" by which our foes measure their achievements?

If we don't know our own measure of the idea of "success," how can we achieve it? If we don't know our foes' measure of "victory," how can we prevent it?

One of the types of game in "Halo" is "Slayer," a team-versus-team free-for-all. In any game like that, I'm likely to rack up more deaths than kills, making me a liability to my team. So for me, winning in Halo, at least in that game, involves not fighting at all, but staying alive and not weighing my team down with my own death count.

So there are ways to win by not fighting, if you know what you mean by "win."

neeyalNovember 15, 2007 2:18 PM

What a lot of people need to realize is there's a difference between terrorism and guerilla warfare.

A terrorist is doing something like blowing himself up in the market. A guerilla is blowing himself (or whatever) up at a military checkpoint (or some other military target), and THAT is his point.

The allies used guerilla tactics during WWII. The states used guerilla tactics to win the war of independence. An unfortunate truth is that when politics and diplomacy fail, and one group relies on military might to impose its will, you will inevitably have people who oppose them.

This blog is about the little guy opposing the big guy. Not about terrorists blowing up markets.

Jean CampNovember 15, 2007 9:18 PM

Jessica Stern wrote a remarkable book: Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

Here is the publishers review, because I read it a long time ago:
She found men and women who were driven not by nihilistic rage or lunacy but by a deep faith in the justice of their causes and in the possibility of transforming the world through violence. That faith, Stern suggests, is fueled by poverty, repression, and a sense of humiliation, and then exploited by "inspirational leaders" who turn confused people into killers.

So, no, running into someone else in Halo 3 in a moment of frustration really does not make you understand the nature of religious killers. For example, you have no goal at all of transforming the world into a better place by your death. You have no underlying belief system.

I would recommend Jessica's book over Halo 3.

John David GaltNovember 15, 2007 10:26 PM

This post does a good job of explaining why kamikaze pilots, and their modern successors, do what they do.

Namely: if I'm going to die regardless, I'll go out in a way that denies my opponent the reward he fought for. Maybe if this happens enough times, his side will decide they've bled enough and call it a day.

I am not arguing that this decision is moral -- only that any attempt to defeat it needs to begin by understanding it.

There's a larger, strategic version of the same decision: a small country may defy a large country and continue a war, in the expectation (or hope) that even the smaller number of casualties the large country loses will convince its leaders or voters to withdraw from the war before the small country has to surrender. This has been tried many times in history, but I know of only two where it worked: for the US in its war of independence, and for Vietnam against the US.

Wesley ParishNovember 16, 2007 5:38 AM

I've been reading some books about the New Zealand part of the British Empire campaign in Northern Africa during the 1939-45 war. One thing that struck me in relation to the Maori Battalion was that once they committed themselves to an attack, there wasn't any going back.

In one situation there were some heavily armed German soldiers - the Deutsche Afrika Korp were probably the elite in the Wehrmacht of that time - moving up to attack a lightly armed NZ position; some Maori had taken a trench between the two; the Germans hadn't seen the Maori; the Maori popped up right in front of the advancing Germans, fixed bayonets and started the haka, the Maori war dance. The Germans surrendered, rather than face their bayonet charge.

In relation to Israel and its many enemies, I read a comment on the way Hizbullah defeated the IDF - once they were committed to an attack, there wasn't any going back, irrespective of their losses.

So much for that aspect.

Suicide bombing as it happens, doesn't happen to be a Muslim speciality. Does anyone remember how Rajiv Gandhi met his death? I have yet to read an Israeli comment on how the Hindu Tamil woman who blew herself - and him - up, did so because she was really interested in the seventy-odd virgins in the Muslim afterlife. And from that, I conclude that Israeli discussions on suicide bombers' motives are tohu wabohu - empty and void.

Put some more thought into it, there's a dear fellow. There's nothing worse than someone putting their foot in their mouth, then shooting themselves in the foot. Talk about messy!!!

paulNovember 16, 2007 12:22 PM

I think the distinction among "guerilla tactics", "terrorism" and "conventional warfare" may be overrated. Certainly from the point of view of civilians at risk of being killed, it's not clear how much it matters whether they're being targeted directly or only as "collateral damage".

And from the point of view of tactics and sense of retribution, it certainly makes sense. Clive Thompson's example is one where an outgunned player can kill the superior opponent by tactical means. If you can't kill the armed contingent of your opponent's society, then you go after the unarmed contingent. (And as long as your opponent is killing unarmed members of your society, even if "unintentionally" the rationalization is easy to make.)

HALO3KNOWITALLNovember 22, 2007 8:03 PM

I actually find this amusing. I do the same thing all the time for 2 reasons:
1) to just annoy the crap out of them
2) to save a less experienced friend of mine from dealing with the elite player by themselves

Yes, I know they can respawn and kill more, but it is that one moment that makes the online gaming worthwhile

HeatherNovember 27, 2007 7:10 AM

That isn't suicide bombing. Booby trapping your or another corpse is a tactic that was in use in Vietnam and dates back much further. Suicide bombing presupposes that you intend to simultaneously kill yourself and your victims (hence the name). The "attack from beyond the grave" is something much older.

PhilJanuary 14, 2008 3:21 PM

This is eerily accurate, if only to illustrate how cartoonish (or video gameish) the principle of life and death is in islam. If you believe that heaven exists, and martyrs receive a direct path to heaven, then suicide bombing of infidels is a fully reasonable and rational conclusion.

SpirituzJanuary 23, 2008 4:58 AM

I can see how this has been strongly related to suicide-bombing by most people but it seems to me like the main point of the article was a choice. The choice to either put up a pointless fight and die or admit that you have lost but atleast go out with a bang. I mean i'd rather have the score 1 - 1 than 1 - 0 so i'd happily turn and give myself up in the hope of evening the score.

connorOctober 31, 2009 9:51 AM

Here is the main issue people see I play halo and im pretty good but I still die but before I die I toss a grenade at my feet and if his shields are low he dies so I didn't kill myself it was a last ditch effort to get the kill and get your team closer to a win so yes it looks like suicide bombing but its not its just a farwell gift that goes boom and in the fact of this he died from gun fire not the explosion.

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