Why People Kill: Scott Atran’s “Devoted Actor” Model and Its Critics


Scott Atran image from jjay.cuny.edu

In his first show back after the attacks of September 11th, David Letterman gave a searing and moving monologue, in which he asked a question, simply and bluntly, that had been on many of our minds. (transcript from Crooked Timber).

As I understand it (and my understanding of this is vague at best), another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings. And we’re told that they were zealots, fueled by religious fervor… religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any Goddamned sense?

For most of us, the answer was, simply, no. Even for many of us who had studied Islam and terrorism, and had some reasons, and were able to dimly weave analysis in a vain attempt to comfort ourselves or others, the fundamental question of “why”, was unanswerable, because it tied into the “how”. How, exactly, could a person sprint toward self-abnegation? What was going through their mind as they made that long, sickening turn into the buildings?

That wasn’t the first example of suicide bombing, obviously- it was a tactic that we knew from WWII, and was prevalent in other parts of the Middle East, and especially (though barely remarked upon) in Sri Lanka, by the Tamil Tigers. Suicide attacks are different than the willingness to die you see in many soldiers. They are even different from “suicide missions”, like in The Dirty Dozen (which I know is fiction), or other seemingly hopeless situations. Because the goal in those is still, in a way, survival. It’s not the only goal, but nor is its opposite. When looking at it as a semi-global phenomenon, from Sri Lanka to Japan in the 40s (although that was a late-war tactic, and not used that much) to the modern Middle East, we see that it is widespread, but that only makes it more mystifying, not less.

One of the people trying to explain this is Scott Atran, whose remarkable book, Talking to the Enemy, does exactly that: interviews with radicals and burgeoning jihadists, in the Maghreb and the slums of Europe, to find out why they want to fight and kill, and why they are willing to die.

Recently, Atran, along with Hammad Sheik and Angel Gomez, released a paper for Current Anthropology that hones in on the theory of why, which they call the “Devoted Actor Model“.  Here is from the abstract:

This report presents two studies in very different contexts that provide convergent empirical evidence for the “devoted actor” hypothesis: people will become willing to protect nonnegotiable sacred values through costly sacrifice and extreme actions when such values are associated with groups whose individual members fuse into a unique collective identity.

I think this makes sense. Basically, what they are saying is that group pressures and loyalties can tighten under extreme circumstances, especially when the idea of identity is at stake. Atran’s work has largely revolved around this idea of group bonding, and group identity, and how the willingness to subsume your identity into a higher cause. This is prevalent among people who feel like they want to be part of something bigger because what they have is small, based not so much on poverty, but on humiliation (in the slums of Europe or the occupied and broken territories of the Middle East) and a sense of historical wrongness, heightened by group-based reinforcement. This focus on group identity has allowed others to misinterpret his works, I think. A recent excellent article on Atran by Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education talks about some of the critics of his theories, who seem a little prone to hysterics.

With prominence comes criticism, and Atran has suffered his share. Sam Harris fired the most personal broadside after listening to a lecture by Atran. Harris, a neuroscientist known for his advocacy of atheism, deemed Atran “preening and delusional” and wrote that his views were evidence of either “mental illness or a terminal case of intellectual dishonesty.” Per Harris, Atran believes that Islamic extremists who blow themselves up do so “not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops.”

Equally dismissive is Jerry Coyne, a professor of biology at the University of Chicago, famous these days as a thunderous ridiculer of religion. In a blog post titled “Once again, Scott Atran exculpates religion as a cause of terrorism,” he quotes the following remarks by Atran: “[W]hat inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem.” Coyne then addresses Atran directly, caps-lock on to drive the point home: “WHAT WOULD IT TAKETO MAKE YOU ASCRIBE ANY OF THEIR ACTIONS TO ISLAM?”

In many ways, these criticisms are the perfect mirror to our degraded political culture, in which the President is pilloried for not saying “Islamic terrorism” even as he bombs half the known world. It’s very easy to say “it’s because of Islam!”, but while that is true in the proximate sense- and is a clear sickness in much of the Islamic world- that still doesn’t actually explain why. It just sounds like truth-telling, a chest-thumping bullying through any pusillanimous nonsense, when in reality it doesn’t get us any closer to the truth of why people kill. There are a billion Muslims in the world. There aren’t a billion suicide bombers. And it doesn’t explain why Tamils were willing to do the same.

That’s what makes Atran’s work so valuable. He certainly doesn’t actually shy away from the reality of Islam, but he asks what it is that makes these people do this right now. There’s nothing inherent in Islam that commands suicide vests (as the Chronicle article shows, Kurds abhor the idea). Nor is there anything inherent in an occupied people that make them go to such moral extremes. So why in this time and place is there an epidemic of people willing to kill themselves for Islam? What social pressures lead someone into this? What about the modern Middle East, and Europe– not to mention Western China, Central Asia, and other places? (I know that the last two are not indistinct, but still.)

I think work like this is extremely valuable, if we really want to understand the reason why we’re in these wars, personified most gruesomely and atavistically by ISIS. If you want, you can say the somewhat relevant, but still fairly facile statement which is that people are willing to kill themselves because Islam, or whatever is passing for it in certain quarters, is telling them to. That’s true. The real important question then is why do some people listen? Understanding that is the whole ballgame.


2 thoughts on “Why People Kill: Scott Atran’s “Devoted Actor” Model and Its Critics

  1. Pingback: Better the Infidel Than The Apostate: Medina Bombings and the ISIS Endgame | Shooting Irrelevance

  2. Pingback: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and The Hajj: The Middle East’s Overwhelming Power Struggle and the US Election | Shooting Irrelevance

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