Review Essay

The Suicidal Tendencies of Suicide Bombers

The Fragile Psychology of Killing Yourself For a Cause

In This Review

Although suicide bombings have become a disturbingly regular occurrence over the past decade, with more than two thousand occurring since 2003, we still have only a limited understanding of why people commit them. In the years since 9/11, it has become clear that suicide strikes are more common in countries under military occupation or with high male-female population ratios; that terrorists are most often recruited by their friends; and that suicide bombing is not correlated with poverty. Those findings can be and have been useful in predicting where suicide bombings are likely to occur. But they do not offer much insight into suicide bomber psychology -- what exactly motivates someone to volunteer for martyrdom in the first place.

Indeed, one of the most impressive recent considerations of that question is not an academic study but a feature film. Ziad Doueiri’s riveting and courageous new movie The Attack serves as an unflinching case study of the mysteries surrounding a single suicide bombing.

The film, which is loosely based on a novel by the same name, tells the story of an upper-middle-class Israeli-Arab couple living a charmed life in a fashionable part of Tel Aviv. Amin Jaafari is a secular, apolitical surgeon from a Muslim family, celebrated for his skill and popular among his Jewish colleagues. His wife, Siham Jaafari, is a hauntingly beautiful, mysterious woman whom the audience barely gets to know, aside from the fact that she seems deeply in love with her handsome and talented husband -- a little bit of her dies every time they part, she tells him.

One evening, after Amin receives a prestigious award, he discovers that his wife is among those killed in a suicide attack on a busy Tel Aviv café. Although he tries to cling to the belief that she was an innocent victim, the doctor eventually accepts that Siham was the perpetrator -- the person who shattered his life and the lives of many others. But knowing she is guilty of the crime is not

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