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 enough: he is determined to unravel what he now understands was her secret life. What led her to choose this path? Why did she do it?

Over the course of the film, the audience is shown the shocking disparities in wealth between Amin’s life in Israel and that of his family living in Palestine under occupation. The movie also introduces us to the painful humiliation of Palestinians at the border crossing and gives intimations that Siham took this political situation to heart. In one flashback, we learn that she refused to have his child, because, as an Israeli Arab, the child would have no homeland -- reason enough, she claimed, for the couple to remain childless. We also learn that Siham witnessed the aftermath of the Israeli attack of Jenin, which occurred at the height of the second intifada, in 2002. But Siham’s decision is never reduced to her political circumstances. The lack of a Palestinian homeland, the militarized border, the disparity of wealth -- all played a role in her decision, it seems, but they are presented as partial and insufficient explanations.

Instead, Amin sifts through evidence of a more personal and intimate nature. He recalls scenes from their marriage, some of which make clear that the relationship between the surgeon and his wife was less perfect than he (and we) believed. He is haunted by the fact that Siham scheduled the final preparations for her suicide attack for the very evening that he was receiving his award. (Her stated reason for not attending the ceremony was that she was going to visit her grandfather.) Was the attack an expression of anger, or of envy at her husband’s professional achievements?

The film ultimately paints a portrait of a woman, who, whatever her political beliefs, was unhappy with her life. That portrayal corresponds to academic research done by a handful of researchers. The American psychiatrist Jerrold Post argued that the essence of terrorist violence is not its ostensible political motives but the violence itself. Terrorists are people who feel “psychologically compelled” to commit violent acts; the political objectives they espouse are only a rationalization. Ariel Merari, a widely respected Israeli terrorism expert, worked for 12 years interviewing 15 failed suicide bombers. Comparing them with a control sample of militants, he found evidence of depression in the first group.

But not many researchers have followed Post and Merari in this line of inquiry. Merari’s findings were also rejected by some scholars as “a series of anecdotes” rather than as data, and a reflection of Israelis’ unconscious wish to find psychological rather than political explanations for terrorism against their country. And Post, for his part, later turned away from studying individual-level risk factors, after facing similar criticism that his methods weren’t statistically rigorous.

The databases of suicide attacks that are now available, although useful for some kinds of study, rarely include details about recruits’ personal lives or their psychohistory. Collecting such personal data is far more difficult and expensive than collecting, for example, details about the targets that were hit; it can also be dangerous. And there is no real substitute for directly interviewing would-be suicide bombers. As Merari points out, it may be easier to interview family members of suicide bombers, but their observations and memories can easily be skewed by the wish to see their dead relatives in a positive light.

The Attack also suggests one surprisingly unexplored explanation for suicide bombing: that suicide bombers are suicidal. That is a notion few scholars have seriously considered. One young scholar named Adam Lankford has lambasted his more senior colleagues for ignoring an obvious truth: that “martyrs,” by volunteering to kill themselves for a cause, are by definition suicidal. One counterargument to Lankford’s work is that suicide attacks tend to come in waves -- but that is also true for ordinary suicide, which has also been shown to be contagious.

In short, as pressing a problem as suicide terrorism is, we still know surprisingly little about the individual-level risk factors that make one family member become a “martyr” and another a doctor, even when both grew up in the same political environment. Eventually, we may be able to identify a host of individual and social risk factors to supplement the political ones already known.

In the meantime, The Attack offers an important reminder that politics are not an adequate explanation or response to the tragedies of suicide bombings. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are depicted in the film as simply heroic or brave. Amin chooses not to assist the police in its investigation of his family or the larger group involved in the attack; meanwhile, many of the doctor’s Israeli colleagues turn against him, despite their awareness of his ignorance of his wife’s plot. Unfortunately, the Arab League has banned the film from being shown in Arab countries, on the grounds that the filmmaker violated a decades-old law prohibiting Lebanese citizens from working in Israel, where the film was shot. Needless to say, this ban is entirely contrary to the spirit in which the film was made. Doueiri admits that growing up in West Beirut, “living through one Israeli bombing after another,” he thought of Israelis as “the Darth Vader of the Middle East.” But, over time, his view of Israel was “demystified,” he said. “We’ve tried armed resistance, and it did not work,” Doueiri correctly points out.

By the end of the film, the doctor recognizes that each side is locked in a cycle of trauma and fear of the other, each claiming to be the bigger victim of the others’ terror. He concludes that repressive responses, by either Israelis or Palestinians, will only make matters worse. That kind of psychological insight is probably not a recipe for solving the conflict. But it may be a first step along the way.

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  • JESSICA STERN is a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law.
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