What Makes Suicide Bombers Tick?

This essay aims at a scientific explanation for an old phenomenon – a minuscule minority of people who commit suicide while taking with them as many of the hated enemy as possible, such as the infidels who enjoy life. There is absolutely nothing new in the essay. It is “old hat” to philosophers, but they are a peculiar lot. They are fearful of publish AND perish, so their deliberations appear in the classroom and scholarly journals and books, but not in the public eye. Besides, unlike the exact sciences, where a law is a law is a law, philosophers never achieve unanimity. It is the nature of the beast.

But let’s not waste time in philosophical chatter. Let’s get to the heart of the matter – in this case, it is the brain of a suicide bomber rather than his (or her?) heart.

We begin with the nucleus of a relatively simple atom such as carbon. It has six neutrons packed in with six protons (in general, however, the number of neutrons and protons is unequal). “Packed in” is a completely inadequate description. The nucleus has a density (weight) of 300 trillion grams per cubic centimeter! It is the stuff of which neutron stars (and people, too) are made.

So how come a block of carbon weighs only a few grams/cc? Because the nuclei are very far apart. Each is surrounded by six electrons; electrons repel each other (and so do protons, but that is another story). The electrons fly around their nuclei unceasingly, day after day, year after year, for there is no friction to stop them. In a hydrogen atom, for example, the lone electron makes 6600 trillion rotations per second around its nucleus (a single proton), at a speed of 2 million meters/second.

The next step on our way to the brain of a bomber is an organic molecule: carbon linked with hydrogen, oxygen, and other mostly simple atoms that stick together, at body temperature, because protons and electrons are attracted to each other.

In a great leap forward—and lots of individuals besides philosophers are debating this one—billions of organic molecules somehow got together to form a helical structure, a deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecule. The DNA molecule is stable and—unraveled—can make a duplicate of itself. This is how it started out on Earth, three billion years ago. But every once in a while, since it is constantly jostled by other molecules (heat), by electric fields (lightning), and by photons (ultraviolet radiation), the DNA molecule mutates. It makes a mistake. And after trillions of mistakes (some of which survived) we end up—you guessed it—with the human animal.

To make a human, a half-human sperm penetrates a half-human egg cell to generate a whole DNA assembly. Given the proper environment and raw materials, the fertilized egg starts to synthesize amino acids and proteins. At first, it starts to grow by dividing repeatedly in two: 1, 2, 4, 8, …cells. (This elementary biology has become very popular, even with politicians, with the advent of stem-cell research.) Eventually, a neural plate forms, neurons proliferate in localized regions, the immature neurons migrate to their final residences, they aggregate and differentiate to form the various parts of the brain, they mature and form connections with other neurons. Starting with almost nothing, with a few simple building blocks, a brain (human or otherwise) is thus created. For a human, it is estimated, there are one trillion neurons, and many of them can form as many as 100,000 connections (synaptic junctions) with other neurons. With one trillion neurons, one can write essays, blow oneself up, and so forth.

How, then, does the brain of a suicide bomber differ from that of you or me? The brain consists of “hardware” that is similar, with minor differences, for every human. The hardware can be modified (and this may be especially true for bombers) by environmental factors such as malnutrition; physical, emotional, and substance abuse; and so forth. The “software” constantly receives sensory information that is partly stored as memories, probably in the form of new and/or modified synaptic junctions between neurons. So it is mostly a matter of programming: From infancy onward, the suicide bomber is programmed to HATE (and also to believe in a deity; but that, too, is another story). Of his own free will, he goes forth to blow himself up along with those who have lived, too long, in blissful ignorance.

But why am I repeating all of this well-known stuff? Because FREE WILL is an illusion! The terrorist has no more free will than your word processor has. If the bomber is caught before he detonates, and appears in court before a judge, he can plead that he is not acting out of free will, that he has been programmed to blow up by outside agencies, is simply following orders, and is therefore innocent. Our response to this is that WE have been programmed to detain, and perhaps execute, this enemy of freedom, democracy, and all of the many wonderful values upon which our civilization is built.  Ironically, to prosecute this never-ending war with maximum efficiency, we will resort to racial profiling and other distasteful accomplices of vigilance.

It is appropriate here to define “free will,” but my dictionary gives a much fuller definition for the opposite of free will: Determinism is the philosophical doctrine that every event, act, and decision is the inevitable consequence of antecedents, such as physical, psychological, or environmental conditions, that are independent of the human will.

Let’s return to that atom with electrons furiously rotating around the nucleus. Where is its “free will”? (Quantum mechanics dogma has it that the future motion of an electron, say, is unpredictable. If so, this implies that the electron does have free will.) Where is the free will of a DNA molecule? At some point in the development of a brain, when a sufficient number of connections have formed, the individual becomes “conscious” – that is, it gets an awareness of its own existence, sensations, and thoughts, and of its environment.  Is this where free will, perhaps, takes over? But consciousness itself is a contentious concept: Is the red that I see the same as the red you see? Is this question, which captures the essential mystery of consciousness, permanently beyond human solution because consciousness is a subjective phenomenon? There is no scientific basis at all for free will tied to consciousness, or for free will in general.

To put it bluntly, the writing of this essay, and your reading of it, are all predetermined by the motions of those electrons around their nuclei. If this is all new to you, you have led a sheltered life, isolated from all of those philosophers. Perhaps this has been a blessing, for you can become a very boring person if you go through life constantly mumbling that “Free will is an illusion,” that every crime is the inevitable outcome of 15 billion years of evolution since the universe was formed out of the Big Bang. We will continue to hunt down the suicide bombers and prematurely detonate them because, although it may sound vindictive and cruel, we are programmed to do exactly that.

(Copyright Pending)


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